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CD Feature/ Henry Brant & Charles Ives: "A Concord Symphony"

img  Tobias

Cases of life imitating art are widespread. On „A Concord Symphony“, however, it is one artistic life which imitates another – maybe not the first, but certainly one of the more impressive instances of this occuring.

Like so many others, Henry Brant fell in love with the work of Charles Ives early on in his career. Aged 15 (and already a „young composer“ according to his linernotes), he saw the score to Ives' fourth Symphony in a copy of the publication „New Music“ and it struck a chord, despite him not being able to actually hear it. In 1941, his encounter with „The Unanswered Question“ opened his eyes as to which direction he wanted to take in his own work and he started practising the „Concord Sonata“ as a pianist in 1957 – by then, Ives had already passed away.

As Brant immersed himself deeper and deeper in the score, the feeling grew that the piece bore an enormous potential, which asked to be set free by an orchestral transcription. Work on this transciption began a year after he first aquired a copy of the „Concord Sonata“ and continued all the way into 1994. Just like Ives, who continued to rewrite his pieces for decades after their first completion, Brant had dedicated almost half his life to a single piece and a particular vision he attached to it.

That vision, as he explains, is the „Great American Symphony“, a term  shrouded in opaqueness but which in this case seems to imply the musical equivalent of a shared feeling of romance, solidarity, freedom, fear and longing. Even though it is never a composer himself (or in this case, an orchestrator), but always a collective, who takes this kind of decision, the „Concord Symphony“ has a fair chance of succeding in its aim.

For one, the blueprint of the Sonata is not only considered a milestone by the critics, but a personally important piece of music for many Americans today. Go and check the forums when this release was announced and you will find a plethora of enthusiastic voices, joyful anticipation and outcries of amazement. The „Concord“ not only brings back memories, it resonates with the daily lives of people, while still carrying enough mysteries inside to keep listeners returning it for some time to come.

Secondly, the character of the music places it firmly in between the past and the future, with various notions of tonality and rhythm rubbing against each other in solemn and serious gestures. There is an urban eroticism and nightly seductiveness in Ives' dissonances, a yearning sense of isolation in his lyrical melodies, a foreloreness and plaintive feet-dragging in his metric beats and an uplifting energy in the almost cacaphonous passages, that awards the work a quality which is very different from the usual idea of timelessness as something harmless and unobtrusive. Rather, it doesn't hide its roots but seems firmly decided to always remain up-to-date.

Finally, the „Concord Symphony“ has the melodic wit and dramaturgical stamina to turn each classical music hall into a place for existentialist rituals again. The four-note Schicksals-theme comes knocking on the doors of hell in the first two movements like a reoccuring nightmare, until it is finally reconsiled in the third. Ives seems to bring things to a peaceful end where Beethoven  failed, but the fourth movement, which at first seems like a superflous addendum, raises doubts again, coming to a grinding halt in a depressive ostinato.

Of course, there is a major difference between the lives of Charles Ives and Henry Brant: While the former stopped composing after a tragic episode, Brant is still going strong, with his own work gaining in general appreciation every year. Suggesting he immitated his early idol by taking so long to finally finish the Symphony would be unfair and incorrect. Let's just say that, just like Ives, the result has been more than worth the wait.

By Tobias Fischer

Homepage: Innova Recordings

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