American Classics - Ives: Emerson Concerto, Symphony No 1

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The Emerson Concerto, a reconstruction by David G. Porter from Ives' "developed draft", gets top billing here, but it's the First Symphony that comes as the real revelation. In conversation with the present writer, conductor and Ives scholar James Sinclair offered the opinion that the reason Ives didn't finish the Emerson as a piano concerto was largely practical: he didn't trust himself as piano soloist, and no one else would have touched the piece in the first decade of the last century when he wrote it. Of course, both Ives and Sinclair were right, and much of the material for the concerto found its way into the Concord Sonata, and happily so.

While I am hardly in a position to judge Porter's work regarding its faithfulness to Ives' intentions (inasmuch as they can be determined), the piece strikes me as thick, clunky, episodic, and slow moving, lacking that typically Ivesian energy and abandon. It sounds more like Carl Ruggles, though with less of both polish and purpose. The important question in evaluating any effort such as this is whether or not it tells us anything really new or essential about the composer. As an interim stage on the way to that certified masterpiece, the Concord Sonata, I suppose it's interesting--but I wouldn't call it necessary, even though the redoubtable Alan Feinberg plays it about as well as we have any right to expect, and Sinclair probably knows it better than anyone in the universe except perhaps Porter himself. Ives fans, of course, should hear it and draw their own conclusions.

No, the big news here is the First Symphony, a work that should appeal to the universe beyond the Ives ghetto, particularly as this performance ought to be regarded in most respects as its premiere on disc. I don't say this lightly: excellent recordings already exist by Eugene Ormandy and Michael Tilson Thomas (both for Sony), but Sinclair not only has a new edition (with additional percussion in the finale that Ives specifically indicated in a letter but that never made it into the previously published score), he also has an interpretation that will prove a revelation to anyone who ever thought of this work as small-scale and unadventurous.

Of course, compared to the mature Ives it's tame stuff, but with all of its repeats in place and lasting some 45 minutes, the work now has a bigness of vision and greatness of heart that identifies it, emotionally at least, as genuine Ives, indelibly stamped with his irrepressible personality even at this early stage. The first movement, episodic though it may be, moves with majestic confidence toward its Brucknerian close, the quirky passages (such as the Stravinskian second subject for solo flute) standing out more vividly then ever before. The second movement, taken very slowly, now becomes a real Romantic adagio, clearly inspired by the Largo of Dvorák's "New World" Symphony (English horn solo and all). The perky scherzo perfectly sets up the athletic but very grand finale (so curiously reminiscent of Nielsen's Second Symphony, except that the Ives came first), with that riotous extra percussion toward the end clearly opening the door to the Second Symphony and the masterworks to come.

No one active today has a better feel for this music, for its past influences as well as its future destiny, than James Sinclair, and he galvanizes the players of the National Symphony Orchestra of Ireland to produce warmly idiomatic, extremely satisfying results. As anyone who has heard Naxos' excellent Malcolm Arnold symphony cycle from this venue might have guessed, the sonics also are outstanding in every respect. Whatever my reservations about the Emerson Concerto, for the symphony alone this disc deserves a very strong recommendation. Don't miss it!
--David Hurwitz,

Product Description:

  • Catalog Number: 8559175

  • UPC: 636943917527

  • Label: Naxos

  • Composer: Charles Ives

  • Conductor: James Sinclair

  • Orchestra/Ensemble: National Symphony Orchestra of Ireland

  • Performer: Alan Feinberg