The problem with programming Charles Ives’ Fourth Symphony – and only the very bold and resourceful and/or the BBC are ever likely to do so – is that it eclipses everything, and I mean everything, in its proximity. And if it was my 90th birthday – as indeed it was on this day for the BBC Singers – I’m not sure I’d want to bask in its aura, especially since the world premiere commissioned for this big birthday – Kevan Volans The Mountain That Left – had to be postponed due to the indisposition of its soprano soloist, Pumeza Matshikiza. This being the BBC Singers, however – a group for whom short notice or sight unseen is a way of life – they were able to serve up three tasty dishes they had made earlier and, birthday or no birthday, I doubt they had ever sounded better.
Judith Weir’s Vertue – exquisite settings of George Herbert poems seemingly illuminated from within and demonstrating as well as could be imagined how the balancing of these particular 24 voices has grown organic through familiarity and kinship. I personally respond less well to the “tip-toe through the tulips” tweeness of Britten’s Hymn to St Cecilia but was full of admiration for the lightness and keen rhythmic impulse of its vocal dancing. John Tavener’s Song for Athene with its drone bass and insidiously memorable repetitions works like a dream heightening our spiritual perceptions and achieving a hall-filling ecstasy with the radiant polyphony of its climax. Its transcendence takes us closer to Ives 4 than one might imagine and, of course, the BBC Singers would be aboard Starship America as it went into orbit at the far end of the programme.
Actually the structure of the evening worked well in the absence of the Volans piece – the a capella voices offering a cleansing interlude between two big orchestral statements. The first was John Adams‘ My Father Knew Charles Ives – an endearing act of homage from one revered American to another – well, actually the godfather of them all, though the title is fanciful and more than a little wishful thinking since Adams‘ father most certainly didn’t know Charles Ives. This is one of those pieces where the idea is more affecting than the piece itself and where direct allusions to – indeed parodies of – the Ives we know and love only serve to increase our desire for the real thing. Andrew Litton and the intrepid BBC Symphony Orchestra did Adams‘ affectionate counterfeiting proud – the marching bands, the glacial half-remembered dreamscapes, the lounge piano and blues clarinet – but with Ives’ greatest work on the horizon this finely fashioned orchestra triptych only came into its own when in the final movement “The Mountain” it began to sound like Adams and not his spiritual master. The rest felt strangely second hand.
Ives speaks of asking and answering (or attempting to) some of life’s most searching questions with his Fourth Symphony and the whole piece does indeed have an aura of the transcendental about it. That’s not being fanciful – that’s telling it exactly as it is. He was a visionary, this man – a blazing original who sold insurance for a living. And if that isn’t one of the great paradoxes in the history of musical art I don’t know what is.
The journey lasts a mere 35 minutes but the sights, sounds, sensations, and feelings that run deeper than we realise are more abundant than in any other single piece of music I know. First the question: “Watchman, tell us of the night/ What its sign of promise are”; then the comedy of life rampant through the outsized orchestra, a myriad snatches and patches of song coming in and out of focus, now blasting in six trumpets, now swooning through the strings, while a solo piano and quarter-toned reflections of it lend to the out of body experience of it all – a riotous collage of the American Dream and all who will ever sail in her.
But to counter this bobby-dazzling fresco with the Shaker-like “plainness” of the fugal slow movement focuses our thoughts and feelings in a way that simply cannot be described in words. It isn’t the music (beautiful as that is) but what it represents that draws us into its great cosmic embrace. There is a clarinet solo just before the close of this movement that will and does break your heart with every hearing. That will never change. And as the extraordinary apotheosis that is the finale duly transports us to regions unseen and unheard one wonders if this work were a time capsule – as I sort of believe it is – what those who unlock it centuries from now would be thinking. Andrew Litton was visibly moved at the close – he was not alone.