Originally recorded in 1970, this is a welcome reissue of superb performances by the young Michael Tilson Thomas in his Boston Symphony days. The Ives is one of his best-known pieces and the crack orchestra plays it to the hilt. Ruggles's Suntreader is the work of another American loner, full of stark contrasts and uninhibited sound explorations--with a brass and percussion opening that'll make you sit up. Piston is often written off as an academic craftsman but his Second Symphony, like most of his works, makes such stereotyping patently absurd. He may not have been as idiosyncratic as Ruggles or Ives, but he was a creative composer whose poised, warmly gracious music should be better known. The three-movement Second Symphony is typical Piston in its classic framework, well-molded melodies and orchestration, and the way it slides effortlessly between the lyrical and the dramatic. It's hard to imagine better performances of these important American works. --Dan Davis
While MTT doesn't really enjoy the comparisons, it would be less than truthful to say that not a little of Lenny's knack with American symphonic writing, as well as the barely-controlled histrionics of Gustav Mahler, rubbed off on him during their professional association in the '60's and '70's. And, even today, you can see it with Thomas's growing cycle of Mahler symphony performances with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra. Ives' and Mahler's contemporary popularity owe more than a little to Bernstein's advocacy, and it's this tradition that MTT falls into. Likewise, one must admit that he often surpasses his mentor.
While Ives was often quite specific in his musical notation and verbal playing instructions, he also encouraged performers to explore the implied "possibilities" of the piece. To understand Ives is to understand musical Americana. Charles Ives, growing up in Danbury, CT, in the late Victorian era under the tutelage and example of his bandmaster-father George Ives, absorbed several American music traditions: traditional hymnody and choral music, small-town brass bands with their often-times less than perfect pitch and ensemble, and the omnipresent European-based symphony orchestra with its established expressive vocabulary. These traditions, focused and remolded under the spell of New England Transcendentalism as expressed in the writings of Emerson and others, become the key ingredients of the Yankee musical "stew" which is quintessential Ives. Therein lies his genius, something which MTT understands deeply.
The turgid, brooding orchestral color of "The 'St. Gaudens' in Boston Common," the incredible mix of Fourth of July pomp and a schoolboy's daydreaming that make up "Putnam's Camp," and the wistful yet powerful evocation of the newlywed Ives couple's walk along "The Housatonic at Stockbridge," all receive their due here in a performance that I return to again and again with pleasure. The added bonus, of course, is the recorded sound, coming as it does from a vintage period of recordings made by DG at Boston Symphony Hall, the acoustic of which can become an ambient swamp if not as successfully managed as it is here. Contrary to an earlier reviewer's remarks, MTT truly "gets" Ives; one only has to hear that moment in "Housatonic" when the swirling string textures give way to the introduction of the "Contented River" theme, one of the most magical moments in all of American symphonic literature. I've never heard another performance match it.
The Ruggles "Sun Treader," as thorny and imposing an opus as one can find, offers equal rewards in MTT's hands, again with the BSO's performance on its home turf yielding major dividends. Ruggles was strongly championed by Thomas, an effort which resulted in a multi-disc LP set of Ruggles' complete works recorded with the Buffalo Philharmonic by CBS/Sony which has yet to see the light of day on CD, a travesty both for collectors and fans of this important American voice. "Sun Treader," the title of which is drawn from Robert Browning's tribute to Percy Shelley, draws its inspiration not from the latter (Ruggles had absolutely no interest in Shelley), but from Browning's verbal imagery...think of a titan's thunderous striding--tympany strokes--across a landscape of barely-contained orchestral movement. Browning, like Emerson, was also an interest of Charles Ives; perhaps a new recording by MTT and the San Francisco Symphony of "Sun Treader," coupled with the Ives "Robert Browning Overture," might by suggested by the A&R folks at BMG/RCA? Sometimes these things just suggest themselves.
Coming at the close of the present disc, the Piston Symphony #2 represents a somewhat less craggy musical lineage. Maine native Walter Piston achieved an almost Italianate elegance in his marriage of New England economy and French musical training. Within the symphony there is warmth, heart, reason, civility, all energetically presented by MTT in the present performance. A fitting finale, then, to a wonderful reissue by DG of spendid readings of 20th century American masterpieces.
But is the music good? The pieces date from 1929 (Charles Ives' Three Places in New England, which was written in the 1900s and 1910s with additional changes added in 1929), 1931 (Carl Ruggles' "Sun Treader") and 1943 (Walter Piston's 2nd Symphony) and all come from artists with origins in New England. I found only two of the tracks truly successful. Ives "The Housatonic at Stockbridge" I've always thought is one of the Connecticut composers' most appealing works, with its rich oscillating chromaticism. The image that is conveyed is of a majestic expanse of water so I was surprised to see just how small the Housatonic is at Stockbridge when I visited there - it's almost a brook -- but that's not problem for listeners who can enjoy an original and evocative piece. The other Ives shows him engaging in the poly-rhythmic experiments and chaotic quotations of folk and popular music characteristic of his style. I appreciate the originality but only some of the Ives does it for me.
In addition to ives' "Housatonic", I also really enjoyed the opening allegro of Walter Piston's 2nd, a discovery for me. The opening melody, built on rising thirds, crests into a downward brass melody with a jazzier rhythm, in an artfully-conceived opening musical "paragraph". The hymnic Adagio holds some very beautiful moments but the sad parts seem a bit forced followed by a fast finale, which is a kind of throwaway, similar to the finales of both Samuel Barber's concertos from this era (the violin and piano concerti). The Piston symphony is the most accessible and least dissonant of the three pieces on the disc. "Suntreader" by bigotted crank Carl Ruggles is interesting as a curiosity of pre-serial atonality - idiosyncratic, edgy, broad strokes, aggressive.
Tilson Thomas combines a program featuring two avant-garde early works with a smoother but accomplished mid-century American work, helped by a terrific performance and engineering job. Downgraded to 4 stars only because the compositions covered are uneven.