Composers: Charles Ives
Compositions: Symphonies Nos 3 and 4
Performers: San Francisco Symphony & Chorus/Michael Tilson Thomas
Catalogue Number: SFS MEDIA 2193600762

Michael Tilson Thomas has been Music Director of the San Francisco Symphony since 1995. Even before then he had form in the music of the American iconoclast Charles Ives (1874-1954). Around the time he took up the San Francisco appointment, Tilson Thomas recorded Ives’ four symphonies for Sony, using the Concertgebouw and the Chicago Symphony.

Compared to those (in particular the Third Symphony, “The Camp Meeting”), these San Francisco performances are clean and analytical but less atmospheric. As always with SFS discs, the sound is clear and full but on the dry side. It suits the Fourth Symphony, one of Ives’ most complex works; the cleaner the sound, the more obvious is the composer’s ear for harmony and colour.

Tilson Thomas couples these revealing performances with 11 hymns that Ives quotes, distorts and musically fragments during the course of the symphonies. I daresay these beautifully modulated, well-pitched, articulate renditions by the SFS Chorus (plus organ) are a long way from the kind of rural hymn-singing the composer had in his ears, but it is useful to hear them as we are less familiar with this music than Ives and his contemporaries. However, if you want these two symphonies with a substantial disc-mate (Ives’s Orchestral Set No 2), try the superb Chandos recording by Andrew Davis and the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, with Jean-Efflam Bavouzet playing piano in No 4.