Naxos' Charles Ives: The Three Orchestral Sets contains the three large orchestral works Ives designated as "sets," as distinct from the 10 suites of pieces Ives collected as "sets" for chamber or theater orchestra, or his four numbered symphonies. This release heralds the first complete rendering on record of the Orchestral Set No. 3, a late work that Ives worked on primarily between 1919 and 1926, although, as in the case of the Universe Symphony, occasional additions to the score were made into the 1950s. In 1919-1926, however, Ives was incredibly busy with other projects: the compilation of 114 Songs and the first publication of the Concord Sonata, not to mention the creation of numerous other ambitious compositions, including The Celestial Railroad, Four Transcriptions from "Emerson, and the Three Pieces for Quarter-Tone Piano. That Ives found the time and energy to pursue all of this creative work in addition to holding down his full-time job as an insurance executive in the wake of a debilitating heart attack that permanently sapped his strength is, in itself, a seemingly superhuman achievement.
The sets are performed expertly and authoritatively by conductor and Chief Ives Society editor James Sinclair with the Malmö Symphony Orchestra; the Malmö's chamber chorus likewise joins in on the "From Hanover Square North" movement in the Orchestral Set No. 2. Orchestral Set No. 1, under its alternate title of "Three Places in New England," was once Ives' most famous orchestral work. Three distinct versions exist of the piece, the most familiar being a revision from about 1930 made at the request of Nicolas Slonimsky in a reduced orchestration; to achieve a "full orchestration" at one time, conductors simply magnified and doubled parts from the chamber orchestra version, a practice that does not represent Ives' intentions. Sinclair first edited and introduced the genuine full orchestration in the 1970s, which Ives had unwittingly endangered by cutting and pasting many of its parts into the smaller score. However, Sinclair has further uncovered the first, 1913-1914 version of the Orchestral Set 1, which departs from the familiar one in many respects: it has a longer "Impression of the St. Gaudens in the Boston Common," a shorter and more direct "Housatonic at Stockbridge," and a less dense "Putnam's Camp" with a number of variant readings in it. It is unlikely to overtake the later editions in terms of popularity -- the more developed "Housatonic at Stockbridge" is certainly to be preferred overall -- but as in the case of all Ives' variants, it is fascinating, and one is grateful to hear it at last.
Although for Ives it was a purely posthumous work, the text of the Orchestral Set No. 2 has been long established, apart from some monkeying around by invasive conductors who handled the score early in its history. None among such changes are incorporated into the text Sinclair utilizes here, and the interpretation is clearer and more direct than many. One appreciates being able to understand what the chorus is singing in "From Hanover Square North," a rare reflection on current events for Ives: it was inspired by the spontaneous singing of people at a railway platform upon arrival of the news of the sinking of the Lusitania. Sinclair also achieves a balanced and well-phrased reading of the amazing "comedy" movement "The Rockstrewn Hills Join in the People's Outdoor Meeting" without sacrificing the sheer excitement of its clangor.
As to the Orchestral Set No. 3, the first movement Andante moderato has been known for some time, recorded in 1979 for an obscure LP release along with some works of Roy Harris. This movement was always a tantalizing fragment that made one want to hear the whole; as Ives returns in it, for a final time, to the kinds of stacked arrangements of perfect intervals that distinguishes his 1907 orchestral piece Central Park in the Dark. Some aspects of this approach continue throughout remaining movements, as well. The second movement "comedy of Danbury reminiscence" -- as John Kirkpatrick referred to it -- returns to the 1904 Overture and March 1776 to patch over some sections and is the weakest movement of the three. Its seamy, cut and paste structure is more glaringly apparent than in any other Ives piece that uses a similar construction, and as such is a rare dud among his output. However, once finished it dovetails directly into Nors Josephson's very well achieved realization of Ives' third movement Andante, of which the source material is particularly scanty, but nevertheless yields a 13-minute movement that is one of Ives' definitive statements, and perhaps the most valedictory one in his orchestral music. This is a transcendental conception par excellence, in which Ives revisits elements from various works, the Browning Overture most obviously, and weaves them into a dreamy, otherworldly and profound atmosphere that is uniquely his. Careful ears will pick out a short passage drawn from the Concord Sonata: is this the only time Ives ever tried to orchestrate from that work? If so, Henry Brant's impulses to create a full orchestration of the Concord were on the right track after all.
One wants to be a little cautious regarding Jan Swafford's assertion that the Orchestral Set No. 3 as "the most profound discovery of the many and ongoing efforts to reconstruct Ives' incomplete works" as it is hard to imagine music more profound than the Universe Symphony. However, the multiplicity of solutions in regard to that work -- and the intense disagreement among Ives' editors as to what represents his intentions there -- can be seen as a rather disconcerting development, although multiple viewpoints on its realization is what Ives wanted. The Orchestral Set No. 3, by comparison, is both sufficiently finite and definitively Ivesian; it puts the period on the end of the long sentence of his orchestral work, and it, along with this recording, further confirms Ives' place as an American composer whose voice spoke both to the whole world and beyond it, into the infinite.