Charles Ives (1874-1954)

Saturday, May 13, 2023

Berliner Philharmonie, Herbert-von-Karajan-Straße, Berlin

Although completed by 1902, Ives’s Second Symphony wasn’t performed until February 1951 when Leonard Bernstein included it in a New York Philharmonic concert that was broadcast, the composer listening at home. It’s a European-traditional-meets-indigenous-American-tunes piece in either five or three movements (I favour three, the outer movements each having a slow introduction). Bernstein made two recordings (CBS, then DG, both New York) and brought to the music particular insights that left no doubt as to his rapport with the score. Not quite the same with Gustavo Dudamel, for all his consideration with the Symphony (and he’s recorded it, and Ives’s others, with the LA Phil for DG), which perhaps needs greater spontaneity in performance. There was something over-worked here despite opening eloquently – beautiful-sounding strings – and then sprinting with tripping rhythms, savouring a cute folk-like ditty, and with allusions to classical repertoire, Brahms borrowed. Rather than suggest cut-and-paste, this was rather calculated, losing Ives his twinkle-in-the-eye mischief, however marvellously played. The slow movement, with Tristan teasers, was maybe too broad if very expressive, and the Finale didn’t quite yearn enough at its start or swagger enough later – maybe I shouldn’t have played Bernstein’s first recording as often as I did – for Dudamel was certainly sympathetic, the Berliners’ response unfailing in every particular, and it must be said that reflective passages towards the end were very poetic, and the razzmatazz coda was unleashed with glee, the dissonant up-yours final chord held-long, like Bernstein, although some conductors do short.

The concert opened with, from Mexico, born 1964, Gabriela Ortiz’s fifteen-minute Téenek – Invenciones de Territorio, exuberant, vibrant and filmic, with plenty of incident, if nicely varied in mood and scoring to avoid sameness, although ultimately it’s a carnival of colour contrasted, midpoint, with soulful solos for numerous instruments heard against an ethereal background, and then careering to the finishing post with force and growing loudness. Enjoyable if perhaps not much to go back for.

As centrepiece, music with greater staying power, from Argentina, composed in 1961, Alberto Ginastera’s four-movement First Piano Concerto, also requiring a large orchestra, and giving the pianist reams of notes to tackle, beginning thunderously to introduce a wide-ranging first movement, from enchanted to hard-hitting, quite modernist, then a ‘Scherzo allucinante’ – fast, mysterious, mostly pianissimo – answered by a dark slow movement, alternating troubled intimate lyricism with impassioned outbursts, followed by a ‘Toccata concertata’ that pulsates all the way to the exciting end, as orchestral as it is pianistic. Sergio Tiempo gave a brilliant performance, from memory, with the Berliners and Dudamel every bit as vivid and rhythmically alert as the pianist, they stuck together throughout, and then he played a jazzy night-clubby encore that I can’t name; indeed I think Tiempo only decided what it would be a second before his fingers hit the keys.