Charles Ives’s Symphony No 1 was not performed complete until half a century after it was started. The Symphony No 4 had its premiere a decade after the composer's death. Ives's four symphonies are unique and wildly disparate confections, which have struggled to get the attention they deserve.
Even now Ives (1874-1954) remains on the fringes of classical music for most people, at least outside the US. He is the ultimate American maverick, a one-off, who worked in insurance during the day and wrote music like nothing anybody else had ever written in his spare time.
The four symphonies, on which Ives worked mainly from 1898 to 1918, sound as if they are by different composers. Here is the development of a genuinely American music in four whistle-stop stages, as Ives first tries his hand at writing a symphony like Brahms (No 1), then dabbles with popular American tunes (No 2), pensively surveys the landscape (No 3) and finally explodes in a blazing finale (No 4).
In recent years his leading champion has been Michael Tilson Thomas during his reign in San Francisco, but now the spotlight has moved down the coast to Los Angeles. Gustavo Dudamel's recordings, made live at Walt Disney Concert Hall in February and available as a digital release now, make a wholehearted, colourful traversal of the cycle.
If in doubt, try the “Comedy” movement of Symphony No 4. Over 30 American popular tunes and hymns pile one on top of another in a riotous cacophony, as the musical memories of Ives's life flash past — an exhilarating, multi-layered, musical dream.
‘Ives: Complete Symphonies’ is released by DG
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