Far from hinting at the avant garde orchestral works to come, Charles Ives’ symphonic debut could almost have been penned by Dvorˇák with Brahms and Tchaikovsky looking over his shoulder. Ives had heard the New York premiere of the New World Symphony and he paid it more than a passing nod, almost channelling the famous Largo (including cor anglais). This engaging work, written when he was still at Yale, shows the insurance salesman-cum-composer was no mere hobbyist. It includes a highly competent fugue in the Scherzo, engaging melodies and skilful use of orchestral palette.
The five-movement Second Symphony, championed by Bernstein, is more characteristic with snatches of Stephen Foster’s Camptown Races and American hymns vying with quotes from Beethoven, Brahms, Bach and Wagner. There’s a hint of what was to come in the final bars where it ends on an abrupt, comical key change – a musical thumbing of the nose? The work was applauded at its premiere although Ives is said to have spat at its reception.
The Melbourne Symphony Orchestra are clearly relishing their collaboration with Chief Conductor Sir Andrew Davis judging from the playing in both works. Phrasing and tempi are excellent and technically they are up there with overseas orchestras. Production from Chandos is exemplary. An enjoyable early glimpse of a misunderstood composer.