Dudamel’s Ives: Nice Try

Review by: David Hurwitz


Artistic Quality: 7

Sound Quality: 8

You have to admit: releasing a complete set of Ives symphonies (even if it’s digital only) takes guts. It also highlights just how difficult it is for conductors to wrap their batons around all four works. Dudamel conducts the music well in general, but you can’t help but feel that greater familiarity would have been beneficial. Take the First Symphony, one of the best interpretations in the set. Dudamel fills the music with plenty of the necessary enthusiasm, especially in the finale, which works its way up to a rousing conclusion. But the balances are off at the climax of the slow movement, and the quieter music tends to droop.

Throughout the Second Symphony Dudamel seems to think that pushing harder will compensate for a lack of rhythmic bite and an effort to project the music’s humor. At the end of the finale, why does he bury the trumpet’s brassy reveille in the general texture, and why not let “Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean” resound with that wonderful, rotund pomposity that Ives surely intended? Faster is not always better.

However, the Third Symphony goes well, as it almost invariably does, with a particularly lovely account of the finale and the soft bells at the end nicely touched in; but the Fourth Symphony is only fitfully successful. I like the way Dudamel shapes the preludial opening movement: unusually measured, expressive, and suggestive of a major event to come. In the chaotic second movement, however, like so many conductors, he’s content to let the cacophony reign instead of digging into the texture to reveal the treasure-chest of tunes buried within. The third movement fugue would have benefited from a bit more organ in its latter stages, and it seems to me that the finale misfires completely. The independent percussion ostinato is balanced far to closely, and the entry of the choir after the big climax lacks any shred of “transcendental” release. It’s all two-dimensional, too “in your face,” with none of that wonderful mystery that conductors from Stokowski to Tilson Thomas to Litton have brought to it.

Speaking of the latter, if you’re looking for a set of the Ives symphonies by a single conductor, Litton’s Hyperion cycle with the Dallas Symphony remains your best bet. Andrew Davis with the Melbourne Symphony on Chandos is also worth considering. As I suggested, this is a good effort, but despite fine playing and generally warm sonics (balance issues aside) it’s still not enough to convince me that Dudamel has this music in his bones.

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Recording Details:

Reference Recording: Complete Symphonies: Litton (Hyperion)

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