The new live recording of all four symphonies by the American composer Charles Ives by Gustavo Dudamel and the LA Phil on Deutsche Grammophon represents a significant moment in classical music.
Dudamel is no longer the wunderkind of classical music; he has evolved into a mature conductor, at home not only with the classics, but with contemporary music as well. And, after more than 10 years at its helm, the LA Phil is now his orchestra, even though there are still players who were hired by Dudamel’s predecessor, Esa Pekka Salonen. Their collective interpretation and performance of the Ives symphonies on this CD must now be added to the list of the great recordings of these works.
If one thinks of distinctly American composers, Ives must be included in the top four or five, along with Gershwin, Barber, Copland and Bernstein, and perhaps a few others. Ives stands out for several reasons. First, like other composers who wove the folk music from their native countries into their music, Ives incorporated American folk songs, hymns and gospel music into his symphonies. Thus, he could be considered a nationalistic composer, not unlike Dvořák and Smetana from Bohemia (Czechoslovakia) and Bartók from Hungary. Second, he broke new ground in his symphonic writing, especially in his last symphony in which he used dissonance and polyphony that was ahead of its time. And, third, like some other composers — Alexander Borodin comes to mind — composing wasn’t his day job. Ives was an insurance agent and financial planner by day. What a contrast. Like Franz Kafka, Wallace Stevens and Albert Einstein, among others, whose day jobs and the art for which they are famous couldn’t have been more incongruent, Ives’ vocation and avocation were seemingly at odds. Of course, for all of these artists, practicality trumped art, at least in terms of making a living.
Ives composed many works, but, unlike many other American composers, he was a symphonist in the European tradition. Ives only composed four symphonies (Brahms also composed only four symphonies), but they spanned the Romantic and the modern eras. The first symphony could have been composed by Tchaikovsky; the fourth symphony is wholly original and full of dissonance and polyphony. All four symphonies have traditional movements marked in Italian. The three movements of the Symphony No. 3 (“The Camp Meeting”) are subtitled “Old Folks Gatherin’,” “Children’s Day” and “Communion.”
The performances on this CD were recorded live in Walt Disney Concert Hall in February 2020 and were paired, not coincidentally, with the last three symphonies of Dvořák because Dvořák lived for a time and composed some of his greatest music in America, including the Symphony No. 9 in E minor, Op. 95, “From the New World,” which includes Dvořák’s original takes on American gospel and native American themes. For the fourth symphony, Marta Gardolińska, the LA Phil’s Dudamel Fellow, was the second conductor.
We at Culture Spot reviewed the performances at the time, and they can be read here:
Third and Fourth Symphonies:
Suffice it to say that the concerts were all stupendous.
Kudos also to the recording engineers because listening to the recordings, it’s almost impossible to tell the performances were in front of a live audience. The sound is impeccable. One could quibble with the decision to omit the audience applause at the end of each symphony. One could make a good argument either way. For example, some might argue that hearing the applause and cheers from the audience makes a performance even more thrilling. On the other hand, one could argue that it might detract from the mood of the music. In fact, when Dudamel conducts pieces that are moody or end quietly, he frequently holds his arms in the air for several seconds indicating to the audience that it is not yet appropriate to applaud. A third possibility is that with this recording, the listener gets the thrill of a live performance without the distraction of the applause. Either way, one can’t quibble with the quality of the recordings or of the performances.
This new recording of the Ives four symphonies by Dudamel and the LA Phil could be conceived as a musical biography of their composer, and listening to them in order, which we would recommend, gives one a sense of Ives’ development as a symphonist and as an American, and of the LA Phil as one of the great American orchestras.
—Henry Schlinger, Culture Spot LA
For more information, streaming and download, visit: https://laphil.com/ives.