IVES:  Symphony No. 2.  Robert Browning Overture.
Nashville Symphony Orch/Kenneth Schermerhorn, cond.

Naxos 8.559076  (B) (DDD)  TT: 66:30

Having embarked on a Hanson cycle for Naxos, Kenneth Schermerhorn and the Nashville Symphony now add Charles Ives, starting with a shotgun wedding of the inchoate Robert Browning Overture, composed between 1908 and 1912, followed by the folksy Second Symphony. The latter work was assembled in 1900-02, "structured" and scored from 1907 to 1910, but retouched as late as 1950; in The New Grove 20th Century American Masters it is listed as No. 11 of his 43 works for orchestra, by no means all of them finished.

The overture is No. 29 -- the first of several that Ives planned to call Men of Literature but the only one carried to completion. In 1907 he did begin an Emerson Overture, and during a four-day period in December 1912 made sketches for a Matthew Arnold Overture, but put that aside, too. Emerson was not forgotten, however; he became the first movement of Concord, Mass., 1840-60, Ives' Second Piano Sonata, composed off and on from 1911 through 1915.

A Charles Ives Society recently established has commissioned and is publishing critical editions, with surprises turning up even in the earliest works for orchestra, Symphony No. 2 included. Leonard Bernstein conducted the premiere in 1951 with the New York Philharmonic, and they recorded it twice, first for Columbia (now Sony) Records in 1958, and again in 1987, a live performance issued on Deutsche Grammophon. But in 1951 he used a "hastily prepared and ill-proofread edition" --the words of Ives scholar and Browning editor Jonathan Elkus in Naxos' program book -- one that lacked tempo instructions for the second movement, had wrong speeds in the finale, and contained nearly "a thousand errors great and small," uncorrected in 1987. In between, Eugene Ormandy recorded No. 2 with the Philadelphia Orchestra for RCA (just reissued by BMG in its "High Performance" series, along with Symphony No. 4). Michael Tilson Thomas made a fine one for Sony, my own favorite, with the not-yet-Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, and Neeme Järvi checked in with an unidiomatic reading on Chandos, recorded in Detroit along with Paul Creston's Second. There is even a 1995 version on the Swiss label Claves, by the Nuremberg Symphony (which I annotated -- the best thing about it, in my immodest view) that also includes Barber's Knoxville, Summer of 1915 and a short piece by Henry Cowell, who was one of Ives' later amanuenses.

So, what's to say about the Nashville version of Symphony No. 2? First off, Schermerhorn uses the Society's scholarly edition -- the final version with a sprightlier tempo that Ives wanted in the second movement, "right" speeds in the finale, and a short dissonant tutti at the end (rather than Lenny-B's raspberry, which vulgarized Ives' curious but characteristic prank). The orchestra has been excellently drilled, although the Browning Overture sounds chaotic during long, fast stretches when Ives alternately rages and raves. However, neither Stokowski with the American Symphony Orchestra, in the work's first recording 35 years ago, nor Morton Gould in a performance with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra could make the piece -- which staggers and lurches for 25 minutes -- sound coherent.

What the Nashville Orchestra does not have is enough strings to make either work sound "significant" -- although I was bothered less by this than some will be. And their Tennessee home, while amply resonant, cannot do for Schermerhorn's unit what tons of wood paneling used to do for the medium-sized Toronto Symphony, before Ontarians replaced Massey Hall with a glassy, shallow-sounding new facility. But Naxos' list price is unbeatable, and the packaging excellent.

R.D. (Nov. 2000)