CD Review: Two Recordings of Charles Ives’ Concord Symphony

There are two recordings of Henry Brant’s orchestration of Charles Ives’ Concord Sonata, taking this essential 20th-century piano work and expanding it for full orchestra.

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Ives’ Concord Sonata (Piano Sonata No. 2, Concord, Mass., 1840-60) is the composer’s best-known work, and contains a concentrated version of many of Ives’ musical ideas. It is the work he poured much of his thought into, even going as far as writing a long essay, “Essay Before a Sonata” to amplify the work. Composer Henry Brant, who discovered Ives’ work at age 15, set out late in life to create an orchestral transcription of the sonata, turning this craggy piano work into an orchestral exploration containing its own share of asperities.

One cannot hope to compare the actual piano work to this transcription; the difference between the solo piano (even in Ives’ masterful use of the broad palette of colors available on the keyboard) and a full orchestra is vast. What Brant does is translate this work into another form. Eschewing much of the rhythmic material inherent in the piano, Brant opts for a transcription that brings in all the colors of the orchestra to interpret the sonata. For example, in the Emerson movement, the first part of the work and the most tempestuous, strong brass instruments are used in place of the harsh, fortissimo chords. Yet, later, woodwinds are at the heart of the more ethereal ending of the work, where subtle touches at the keyboard give melodic fragments.

In the Hawthorne movement, Brant chooses an almost Mahlerian selection of light instruments then heavy brasses to translate the rapid arpeggios and near tone clusters of the opening, before bringing in the string section. The Thoreau movement opens with a flute (which is appropriate, because of the use of the flute in some versions of the actual sonata, representing Thoreau’s playing a flute by Walden Pond), then using colorful oboe runs to lay out the melodies. Mellow strings stand behind as structural elements, and this, the most transcendent of the four movements of the sonata, starts with a smaller, less raucous treatment from the orchestra, before using a crescendo of brass and timpani. The main melodic phrase of this movement arises in many forms, though mainly played by the string section, and the orchestration of this part of the work may be the most delicately subtle sections of the symphony.

All in all, the contrasts between the different choices of instrumentation and the piano are similar to the difference between black-and-white and color; or, more correctly, black-and-white and grayscale. Not to suggest that the sonata played on the piano is in black and white; far from it. It is one of modern music’s most varied and colorful works for piano. But listening to one then the other shows that these are more two completely different works rather than simply a transcription. The highlights are different on the piano than where, in the orchestration, a choice of instruments makes certain phrases stand out.

For all that one may wonder at the choices of orchestration, this Concord Symphony simply works. It translates Ives’ vision into a different form, and does so extremely effectively. It gives the listener a new perspective on the brilliant work that is the Concord Sonata. This recording is certainly an essential addition to any Ives collection.

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I have a particular affinity for this work – the piano sonata version – being especially interested in the writers that Ives puts into music, and having some 15 recordings of the work. Performers of the sonata can approach it in many ways, choosing to highlight the tempestuousness of certain parts of the work (notably in the Emerson movement), focusing on the rhythmical aspects of the composition, or choosing tempi that are either very fast or much slower. (The recordings I have range from a speedy 38 minutes to a leisurely 62 minutes, with an average in the 45-50 minute range, or about the same tempo as this current recording.)

When unleashed for orchestra, the Concord Sonata (or Symphony) takes on a new life. As I said in my above review of the Dennis Russell Davies recording, “these are more accurately two completely different works rather one being simply a transcription of the other.” Michael Tilson Thomas has developed a “sound” with his San Francisco Symphony orchestra, a group of musicians he has been working with regularly for more than 15 years, and with whom he has performed many 20th century works. There is a certain naturalness in this recording, as though the orchestra is in its milieu, and a balance among the instruments that sounds nearly ideal. When the orchestra lets loose in the middle of the Hawthorne section – with blaring horns, punctuated by soft strings, then back to a cacophony of horns, then a marching band imploding – I just want to turn the volume up and be overwhelmed by the waves of sound.

The sound quality of this disc is excellent. The orchestra is spacious, and the full palette of instruments can be heard well no matter what the volume; as this work has a very wide range of volume, this is essential. The full, lush strings in the Alcotts section fill the soundscape, and the definition of the winds and strings in the beginning of the Thoreau section is clean and precise. There is one tiny problem, though, at the end of the work; applause. There is really no need to have applause at the end of a live recording of any classical work, if that applause can be edited out (which it can here). It stands merely as a reminder that the recording is live – one which, by the way, is unnecessary – and it is almost insulting to reach the end of a work, feel the enjoyment of completion, and then be interrupted by such noise. If I’m in a concert hall, I expect it; on my stereo, I resent it. Why any sound engineer, or anyone else involved in a recording like this, would want to have 5 seconds of applause, is beyond me.

While the headliner on this disc is the Concord Symphony, this current recording does include another work, and no mean one at that: Aaron Copland’s Organ Symphony. An early work, premiered in 1925 when Copland was merely 23 years old, this was Copland’s first major composition. (Copland later rescored this as his Symphony No. 1.) The three movements are all very different. In the first, light strings play a subtle melody, as the organ plays almost a continuo, but so quietly you can almost miss it. The second movement has a snappy tempo, and is almost dance-like at first, with the orchestra taking center stage, swelling to monumental scale. The organ is, for the most part, in the background, being just another instrument in the orchestra, and not a solo instrument until the very end of this movement where it has a bit of presence. The final movement, Lento, begins with dense strings, and the organ finally becomes prominent, in full expression. Slow, loud chords are enough to shake the room you’re in, and I can imagine that, in the Davies Hall, where this was performed, the effect must have been impressive. As the movement goes on, the orchestra becomes imposing and powerful, ending with a powerful punch. While melodically this is a simplistic work, the sound quality, as for the Ives, is excellent.

The Copland is a young composer’s work, and, compared to the refinement of Ives’ Concord Sonata (and the orchestration herein), is much less interesting. But the coupling of these two works presents two great American composers writing around the same time, and rather than just having the Concord Symphony on this disc, the addition is welcome. Compared to the Davies recording of the Concord Symphony, I’d give a few extra points to this current recording, if only for the sound quality which features better definition. But both are excellent. If you don’t know this work, and appreciate Ives, this current disc – with the addition of the Copland – is essential.

To sum up, if I had to choose between these two recordings, I’d lean toward the Tilson Thomas version. This isn’t so much because of the additional work by Copland, but the sound and recording are a bit better on that disc. The two performances are similar, but the San Francisco Symphony comes out ahead.