Monday, 8 October 2012

Berliner Philharmoniker goes American Charles Ives 4

Gershwin, Antheil, Charles Ives and Bernstein - an all-American programme, but with a twist. Often programmes like this make me cringe because they're done with self-conscious folksiness. But Ingo Metzmacher conducts the Berliner Philharmoniker with wry, distinctive style. Each piece stands on its own merits; no special pleading needed. Even Bernstein's Symphonic Dances from West Side Story sounds fresh, the tunes integrated into the overall musical logic. That's saying something!

If Bernstein is the over-exposed "face" of American music, George Gershwin and George Antheil don't get the respect they deserve. Gershwin's 1932 Cuban Overture isn't his greatest work but it's an attempt to use Cuban rhythms in "mainstream" music. What fun it is to see the august players of the Berliner Philharmoniker play bongos, maracas and rhythm sticks! Cuban music aficionados will probably cringe, but the point is made. Even with Gershwin, Cuban doesn't go gringo.

George Antheil's Jazz Symphony (1955 version) is musically a better proposition, and the Berliners give a vigorous account. I prefer the spikier 1925 version, (excellent recording by Ensemble Modern) but Antheil's later, larger orchestration reflects the period in which it was revived. It's apposite, however, in the context of the Bernstein suite. Even at the end of his life, after a long career in Hollywood, Antheil still understood what jazz is. The Berliners did it with style - wildly bluesy trumpet, louche piano, the orchestra deliciously decadent and witty.

Charles Ives's Symphony no 4 was by far the best part of the programme. Metzmacher appeared to be the only conductor, though a second conductor was present.  But much of the leadership came from Pierre-Laurent Aimard who has played the symphony many times. His Ives is idomatic in the sense that he's played all of Ives's music for piano, but his structural clarity doesn't go down well with those who want their Ives "traditional". Too bad, I think. Ives was writing serious music, not retro. A supremely professional exponent like Aimard would have been beyond Ives's wildest dreams.

The beauty of Ives's work, for me, is the way he blends popular culture into sophisticated music. The hymns, songs and marches  shouldn't over-dominate for they are snatches of memory in a much more complex musical conception. Aimard took control from the first bars of the Maestoso, dominant dark chords making a firm statement A single cello responds, and then the choir, singing brief snatches of the hymns whose origins Ives knew so well. Metzmacher conducted so a sense of contemplative silence prevailed, much more in keeping with the mood of the songs than the uncharacteristically muted diction of the Ernst Senff Choir.

The Allegretto is a strange beast, with multiple cross-currents. It's notoriously difficult to conduct, but Metzmacher understands 20th century music so well that he can show how Ives was way ahead of his time. Ives breaks the orchestra into components, playing at different tempi: individual cells operating within a larger mechanism. Aimard leads. playing faster and faster almost to the point that the strings can't keep up. This tension underlines the strange, mechanical repeats in the music. The filming is musically sensitive: two violinists are shown bowing in a strange mechanistic ritual.  Yet the overall impact is of extreme energy, even a sense of madcap zany rebellion in the wayward rhythms. One thinks of New York, where Ives worked, its skyscrapers (even in 1918) and busy infrastructure. Years before Fritz Lang's Metropolis, Ives is creating futurist concepts in music. 

Th offstage ensembles intensify this idea of multiple spheres of activity. A solo violin is heard from above the stage, adding ethereal unworldliness. The second piano plays a relatively easy melody. Their music feels symbolic, like a commentary on the main piano and orchestra below. Then all hell breaks loose. What sounds like a conventional miltary match  develops at a wacky, wayward pace. Most definitely not a march to march to, which may also be part of the underlying meaning.

Metzmacher breaks it off sharply, strengthening the contrast with the Fugue and its mixture of hymn melodies and memories. Is Ives looking back on an idealized past? Ives's father fought in the Civil War and played the games required of patriotic veterans, but from what we know of his life, he wasn't happy or fulfilled. Ives strongly identified wth his father, the black sheep of the family.  Can these references to nostalgia be as simple as they seem? The trombone plays a reference to "Taps", played at the close of day, but also to mark the death of soldiers.

Percussion mark the start of the Finale, suggesting a procession or march. Metzmacher and the Berliners take this so quietly that the mood seems ominous, even though the strings soar in more conventional unison. Aimard reinforces the darkness, firm, assertive playing and absolute precision. Again, Ives contrasts mass with individual. A single violin plays  a slow, gracious figure which contradicts the gloom. Mysterious swaying sounds in the main orchestra, gradually building to a strange climax and retreats. Out of this almost nothingness Aimard plays passages so beautiful that they seem magical. The hazy diction of the choir worked musically, for me, because it put greater emphasis on piano and orchestra than on the literal meaning of the words. That, perhaps, is Metzmacher's achievement. Ives's Fourth Symphony is much greater than the sum of its parts. Listen to this concert on the Berliner-Philharmoniker website.

The photo shows Charles Ives in 1945 (Eugene Smith, courtesy It's famous because it shows the quirkier side of Ives. Look at that crouch - is he about to spring at the photographer and catch us all unaware? 

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