Michael Stern

Charles Ives: Symphony No. 3

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It is interesting that European orchestras are taking so much interest in recording the music of Charles Ives; historically, it is true that Ives' orchestral music was heard with much more frequency earlier on in Europe than was the case in the United States. This Col Legno disc featuring the Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Saarbrücken (that is, the Radio Symphony of Saarbrücken) under American conductor Michael Stern brings us a German orchestra in three of the most unjustly neglected of Ives orchestral pieces, the Symphony No. 3 "The Camp Meeting," the early Set of Four Ragtime Dances, and the Robert Browning Overture. Col Legno's sound is loud and a little bright, but very clear; the Symphony No. 3 is performed in a strongly Romantic manner reminiscent of Brahms and at quick tempi -- the first movement is very fast indeed for the marking Andante maestoso. Hartmut Lück's liner notes comment that "in the literature on Ives (the Third Symphony) is occasionally treated as less significant (than the others), but under the circumstances it seems inappropriate to underestimate it." This man speaks the truth, but it appears that Stern has overcompensated somewhat for its perceived conservatism by including a few too many of Ives' "shadow parts," as practically all of them are included. Ives wanted listeners to pick and choose, and at one point, he struck all of them out.

The Robert Browning Overture is very good in the slower Adagio and Largo sections, whereas the faster Allegro sections are a bit less well coordinated and rather sluggish. However, Col Legno's recording does provide some service to the Browning in that the massed instrumental groups in loud sections are well divided and it is easier to distinguish what is going on than in most other recordings -- the percussion, in particular, sounds great. The best thing about this disc is the Set of Four Ragtime Dances, which is both very well played and recorded; for the first time the role of the piano in these pieces is centralized and clear, and a jaunty, raggy tempo, though broken up as was Ives' wont, is maintained throughout.

While this Col Legno release may not become the favored choice for the Third Symphony for many dyed-in-the-wool Ivesians, the other works are generally well handled. Given that these pieces have been recorded with far less frequency than most other orchestral works of Ives, this Col Legno disc is recommendable to his fans, though the "brass ring" in these works is still up for grabs.

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