American and English Orchestral Music
Charles Ives (1874-1953)
Three Places in New England (1903-1929)
Dame Ethel Smyth (1858-1944)
Suite for Strings Op.1a (1884/1891)
Serenade for Strings in D major (1889)
William Grant Still (1895-1978)
Mother and Child (1943/1944)
Caroline Shaw (b. 1982)
Entr’acte (2011/2014)
Sir Edward Elgar (1857-1934)
Chanson de Matin, Chanson de Nuit (1889-1890)
Orchestre de Chambre de Lausanne/Joshua Weilerstein
rec. 2020/2021, Salle Métropole , Lausanne, Switzerland
Claves CD3091/92 [2 CDs: 104]

This is a beautifully presented two CD set from the Swiss label Claves. The young American conductor Joshua Weilerstein has put together an intriguing programme that places the Americans Ives, Grant Still and Shaw alongside the English Elgar and Smyth.

Charles Ives was an almost exact contemporary of Ralph Vaughan Williams. They both had a rigorous academic training; both had an interest in the folk music of their respective countries.  There the similarity ends.  Even seventy years after his death and more than one hundred years after most of his music was written, his style is still challenging to the contemporary audience.  The extreme dissonance, the complex rhythms, the sometimes eccentric orchestration, mean his work is not often programmed – but he was a great composer who paved the way for much of what developed in the twentieth century.

The Three Places in New England is probably Ives’ most-performed orchestral work and the one which introduces an unsuspecting listener to his singular musical world.  Like much of his music, it had a stretched-out compositional period, being written between 1903 and 1914.  It was then left alone until 1929 when it was heavily edited and rescored for small orchestra in 1929 for a performance conducted by Nicholas Slonimsky in 1930.  It is a gloriously outrageous, yet moving, suite, drawing on Ives’ memories of growing up in the New England of the late 19th century.  I think his stuffy Yale professors would have had collective heart failure if they had seen this score, as it is so unlike anything that had been written before, or indeed for a very long time after.

It opens with The St Gaudens’ in Boston Common (Col Shaw and his Colored Regiment) inspired by the monument to Colonel Shaw who, along with half the regiment (300 men), was killed at the Battle of Fort Wagner in 1863. It is basically a slow funeral march interspersed with a patchwork of transformed parlour songs and plantation chants, including Marching through Georgia and Massas in the cold cold ground.  These and many others are strategically placed throughout the first six minutes building to a tremendous fff climax before the ghostly march continues.  The score is mostly marked quiet or very quiet, which should make the climax terrifying.  Sadly, throughout, the dynamics are just a little too loud for the full drama of the climax to have real effect.

Next comes Putnam’s Camp, Redding Connecticut commemorating a historic landmark to a figure from the Revolutionary War.  Here Ives throws together some two dozen or so lively popular marches and dance tunes including Yankee Doodle, The Irish Washerwoman and The Star-Spangled Banner.  They collide separate and collide again as though marching bands are playing different tunes all compete for the same space – Ives’ father had tried such a feat with real bands during Charles’ childhood. Wrong harmonies, wrong time signatures, rhythms piled on top of one another all compete for our attention.  It is, even after one hundred years, absolutely bonkers and absolutely captivating.  Even if it sounds like it, nothing is left to chance, but in the wrong hands it can sound like chaos.  Mr. Weilerstein skilfully manages to make all the complex lines clear and all the collisions happen exactly when they should.

The madness is swept away by the last movement The Housatonic at Stockbridge, one of music’s great orchestral nocturnes.  It is inspired by a walk Ives and his wife had taken one evening at twilight along the river when they heard through the mist music from a distant church.  Yes, there are quotations here, too, but as they are the little known Dorrance and Missionary Chant by Isaac B. Woodbury they do not seem intrusive.  What does sing out is a slowed-down version of the motto theme from Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5, a phrase that had a mystical pull for Ives. The slow journey of the river conjured by the strings on top of which solo instruments play fragments of the tunes is beautifully shaped by Weilerstein into one seamlessly moving flow. The quiet dynamics are better managed here than in the first movement and the build to the huge climax just before the end is exciting, though try as I might, I could not hear the massive cluster the pianist plays with her forearms. The smaller forces enable all the lines to be heard but I do prefer the work played by larger forces where what John Cage called “the mud of Charles Ives” becomes apparent. I am very fond of Michael Tilson Thomas’ recording with the Boston Symphony currently available on DG Twentieth Century Classic; he captures the “mud” nicely. 

Dame Ethel Smyth suffered during her lifetime from being labelled “a woman composer” and of being somewhat eccentric in character i.e. independently minded.  Stories of her conducting her “March of the Women”, written for the Suffragette movement, from the window of her cell in Holloway Prison with a toothbrush, have overshadowed her considerable skill as a composer. It is all to the good then that more of her music, particularly her operas, are appearing on record and on stage.  

Like many of her English contemporaries, she had a thorough musical education in Germany, notably in Leipzig.  There she met and became friendly with many of the great musical figures of the time including Grieg, Dvorak, and Brahms. In his otherwise fine liner notes, Mr Weilerstein opines that she studied with Brahms. I am not sure where he gets this information from as there is nothing about that in her highly entertaining memoirs.  She certainly knew him, and she spends some pages painting a none too flattering portrait of the man. She did, however, appreciate his music and there is undoubtedly a Brahmsian turn to the early works recorded here. The Suite for Strings was originally published in 1884 as her String Quintet Op. 1; this arrangement was published in 1891 and was made after the success of her the Serenade in D of 1889. The suite is clearly the earlier piece, though it could not be considered a student work.  It is full of personal character and in this orchestral guise bears some similarity to the sound world of Grieg’s Holberg Suite of which the string version had appeared in 1885. The adagio is dark and brooding and masterfully structured, while the very lively finale, interspersed with teasing quiet sections, is a jig which Stanford would have been proud of.  It fits perfectly in the genre of late Romantic strings with which these players are clearly familiar and which deserves to be regularly programmed. 

The same could be said of her Serenade in D major. She had clearly developed enormously as a composer in the five years that separate the string quintet’s material and the material of the serenade. This is the work of a fully formed musical personality. The lengthy opening movement with its brooding opening is symphonic in structure and approach. Mr. Weilerstein shapes the piece exquisitely and the strings bring an almost Viennese turn to the phrasing. The following three movements are all lighter in character and probably what stopped her calling it a symphony. The second and fourth are unmistakably English with hornpipe and jig standing in for a polka or furiant. Odaline de la Martiez made a pioneering recording of the work for Chandos in 1996 (CHAN9499). As she follows repeats, that version is almost ten minutes longer than here and the larger BBC Philharmonic gives a fuller sound which I prefer, but this is very fine playing of unfamiliar repertory and is to be applauded.

At the age of 30, Caroline Shaw won the Pulitzer Prize for Music and has continued that success with numerous international commissions. Like Smyth’s suite, this Entr’acte began life in 2011 as a chamber work and was arranged for string orchestra in 2014. It is inspired by a key change in Haydn’s String Quartet Op.77 No 2 which Ms. Shaw feels takes us, like Carroll’s Alice, to another world.  This enables her to juxtapose seemingly extreme opposites of style and playing techniques in one minuet and trio form.  It hangs together surprisingly well, with some lush string writing luring us into a false sense of security before we are left puzzling as to how exactly some of the unusual sounds are produced. 

Three short works originally for violin and piano here in orchestral arrangements complete the programme.  The Elgar works are amongst his most well-known and show salon writing of the highest order.  The players shape each phrase lovingly and make these rather overplayed works seem fresh. Mother and Child by the African American William Grant Still is certainly not as well-known as it should be.  It was written as part of a suite for violin and piano and is inspired by a 1932 painting by Sargent Claude Johnson showing a Black woman cradling the head of a small child.  That version proved popular, and the composer wasted no time in making a number of arrangements; it is presented here in its string orchestra guise which premiered in 1944. Like the painting, it is simple in its musical expression of motherly love.  The string tone throughout, like that of the musical material, is sweet without becoming maudlin.

All in all, this is an impressive set, although as much as I love the Ives, it does seem an uncomfortable bedfellow.

Paul RW Jackson

Help us financially by purchasing from

Presto Music