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Charles Ives: Symphony No. 2
Elliott Carter: Instances
George Gershwin: An American in Paris
Ludovic Morlot, conducting the Seattle Symphony
Review By Joe Milicia

 

  Since Lodovic Morlot became the music director of the Seattle Symphony in 2011, the orchestra has been issuing recordings under its own label. Three of the first four have been of French music (not surprisingly for the Lyon-born conductor): one that might be called "Fauré's Greatest Hits," one mixing Ravel and Saint-Saëns, and an all-Henri Dutilleux disc which is a must-hear for lovers of complex, moody Modernism. The fourth is all American, and a most unusual combination of pieces: all startlingly original in their own day but exceedingly different from one another, as were the trajectories of their composers' careers.

Charles Ives' Second Symphony is some kind of masterpiece. Displaying the outward shape of a typical late-19th-century symphony but bursting with popular American tunes and breaking all kinds of compositional rules of the day, it never ceases to delight. Morlot's reading is the most exciting I've heard since Leonard Bernstein's pioneering Columbia recording of 1958. Musicologists have pointed out that Bernstein made changes in the orchestration and dynamics of an already error-laden score, and made a 16-bar cut in the finale. I'm guessing that Morlot uses the 2000 Charles Ives Society critical edition of the score, edited by Jonathan Elkus, if only because many details are different (and the finale longer); but irritatingly, nothing in the CD package tells us. (The Naxos recording with Kenneth Schermerhorn/Nashville was the first broadly available CD to use the new edition, but I haven't had a chance to make a direct comparison with Morlot/Seattle or to consult the new score.)

Morlot tends to bring out Ives' counterpoint more than in other recordings I've heard: e.g., the pizzicato bass countertheme at the very beginning, and the multiple strands in the raucous final pages. This means that some of the familiar American melodies that Ives uses and transforms are not as highlighted as much as one might want, but I like the general briskness and bustle, almost in the spirit of the Meistersinger Act I Prelude at times. The Seattle Symphony plays superbly throughout, with the strings especially rich and firm in the opening Andante moderato and the heartfelt Adagio cantabile third movement. The finale features a spectacularly beautiful horn solo during the slower passage that recalls both Dvorak and Stephen Foster; and when the tune is recapped with an equally lovely cello solo with flute countermelody, Merlot gives the music plenty of time to breathe. Speaking of horns, Morlot curiously underplays their first iteration of "Columbia the Gem of the Ocean" in favor of the cellos that double the melody; this could be a matter of sound engineering, but more likely the conductor wanted to keep the string sound dominant through the first movement. As for the final nose-thumbing dissonance, Morlot doesn't stretch it out much as Bernstein does, but he holds it rather longer than many another.

Elliott Carter was born in 1909, around the time Ives was finishing his Second Symphony, and Ives actually sold insurance to Carter's parents. More significantly, as a teenager Carter did write an admiring letter to Ives, who encouraged the youth to pursue musical composition. Whether this justifies the juxtaposition of Ives and Carter on the present CD may be debated, but the fact is that Merlot and the Seattle Symphony did premiere Carter's last orchestral composition, Instances, in 2012, and it is good to have their performance at hand. Instances (dedicated to Morlot, by the way) is a 9-minute work in Carter's high-modernist style. I can't say I truly comprehend its intricacies even after several hearings, but I like it very much, especially the contrasts of sustained phrases (both rapid and very slow) with spiky single notes from a great variety of instruments. The score clearly calls for a large orchestra and considerable percussion, though there are no passages for the whole orchestra at once.

After this, why not An American in Paris? Morlot originally programed it with Varese's Amériques and Stravinsky's Rite of Spring, presumably to bring out its modernities, and indeed that happens as well in this CD program: Gershwin's unique tone poem sounds fresh, modern, startling in its constant shifts of tempo, mood and color. The Seattle players know how to bring out the jazzy inflections, and the performance has plenty of energy and drive; but I would still have liked more swagger in the rhythms and juicier flourishes in the solos. It's a performance that might be more "Paris" than "American," in the sense that it sounds more like Milhaud than Tin Pan Alley, and the winds' taxi-horn outbursts are coloristic elements rather than, well, taxi horns.

Seattle Symphony Media's engineers provide excellent sound for this release, with clarity, weight and good stereo separation. The works were all recorded in concert at the orchestra's home, Benaroya Hall, between 2011 and 2013; perhaps the Carter has the most strikingly vivid sound, but that is probably because the music is pointillistic, each instrument in its own space. The Ives and Gershwin pieces are followed by roars of audience approval, but no applause follows the Carter. This seems unfair: even tepid applause would be better than none, especially because there is far too little space in between the last quiet note of Instances and the first jaunty bars of An American in Paris. Good program notes by Paul Schiavo complete the package.

 

 

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