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Reflecting a different, more experimental period in American music history, Charles Ives' panoramically conceived Fourth Symphony crowned the concert with exciting, and unusual effects and sounds. For its time it was an innovative, daring score exploring new territories, and crossing boundaries some of which are still being shifted, those of popular and high art.

Particularly compelling was the unique collage of confrontational idioms and instrumental novelties, such as the theremin, which in the finale, weirdly sang its stratospheric song, though rather submerged in the general welter of sound. With the giant chorus of the London Philharmonic Choir, the prominent solo piano part played by Ralph van Raat and the appearance of Matthew Rowe as a subsidiary on-stage conductor, coordinating the superpositions of textural strata, the performance conveyed something of the excitement of the early 20th century experimental movement which has flourished in the USA ever since -- witness Varese, Cowell, Cage et al.

Another premonition of modernism and postmodernism is Ives' preoccupation with American folk song, hymns, and brass music, such as the choir intoning 'Bethany' and a brass band march clashing with distant and dissonant string halos, the melange creating an adventurous ambiguity tinged with irony. Perhaps less obviously Ivesian was the richly late romantic fugal third movement, its Bachian subject coloured by a decorative turn, discussed in lush string textures only to be curiously undermined by trombone and organ entries. The sound often seemed prototypical Copland, and Robertson drew every ounce of expression and poignancy from the strings, with just enough sentimentality to balance the caustic detachment of the earlier movements.

It was the finale which summed up the work most successfully, a Modernist collage tableau in which the paradoxical combinations of blurring and clarity, heroism and a questioning tone, came across with winning potency. The sound world of the BBC Symphony Orchestra and London Philharmonic Chorus was thrilling, the final choral chord resonating in stillness while the cross beat pattern of the percussion section, continually present throughout the movement, gently faded into the ether.

Copyright © 25 July 2007 Malcolm Miller, London UK



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