We thought we were done with the orchestral music of Charles Ives once the first, of now several, realizations of his never finished Universe Symphony was rolled out in 1993. Who would have thought that 15 years later that another never finished -â€“ and rumored "un-finishable" -â€“ Ives work, the Orchestral Set No. 3, would come so late out of the gate? On Naxos's Charles Ives: The Three Orchestral Sets, James Sinclair and the MalmÃ¶ Symphony present this piece for the first time, finally putting a period to the long sentence of his orchestral output.
Ives once commented that he had written "seven symphonies," once taken to mean the four numbered symphonies, Ives' two completed orchestral "sets," and the "Universe." The Holidays Symphony was made up of movements conceived individually and only combined as an afterthought, one that Ives authorized but thought not very successful. The three large orchestral works Ives designated as "sets" are distinct from the ten suites of pieces Ives collected under the same rubric for chamber or theater orchestra. Naxos's Charles Ives: The Three Orchestral Sets 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 1919-26, 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 MalmÃ¶ Symphony Orchestra; the MalmÃ¶'s Chamber Choir likewise joins in on the "From Hanover Square North" movement in the Orchestral Set No. 2. The Third Orchestral Set is not the only premiere on Charles Ives: The Three Orchestral Sets: three distinct versions exist of Orchestral Set No. 1, also known as "Three Places in New England," the most familiar being a revision from about 1930 made at the request of Nicolas Slonimsky in a reduced orchestration. At one time, to achieve a "full orchestration," 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 uncovered the first (1913-14) version of the First Orchestral Set, 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. It is unlikely to overtake the later editions in terms of popularity â€“- the more developed "Housatonic at Stockbridge" is certainly to be preferred overall â€“- but, as in the case of all Ives' variants, it is fascinating, and one is grateful to hear it at last.
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 piece of Ives 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's 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 that is 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 is, by comparison, sufficiently finite, recognizable as "Ivesian" and further confirms Charles Ives' place as an American composer whose voice spoke to the whole world.