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Lynn René Bayley
Fanfare, November 2008

James Sinclair does a fine job of conducting a technically adroit orchestra not particularly skilled in the musical language of Ives, one reason why, I feel, there is sometimes a rhythmic reserve in the march and ragtime tunes when a more aggressive outburst would have been quite welcome. Recommended for the alternate version of Set No. 1 and especially for Set No. 3. © 2008 Fanfare Read complete review

James H. North
Fanfare, November 2008

Sinclair has proven himself to be an exceptionally able conductor with many ensembles, from Orchestra New England to old England, Ireland, and now Sweden. I believe I only have heard him conduct Ives, but all his recordings have been sensitive and beautifully realized. That continues to be the case, to the extent that it is hard to tell how much is due to Sinclair the editor and how much to Sinclair the conductor. The recorded sound is open yet warm, just right for this music. The appearance of the Third Set on discs is occasion to rejoice, and—more important—occasion to acquire it. © 2008 Fanfare Read complete review

Peter Dickinson
Gramophone, October 2008

A real discovery in this complete set of the Orchestral Sets. This is a fascinating release that offers Ives’s three Orchestral Sets for the first time…the novelty here is the Third Set. The first two movements come from sketches edited by David Gray Porter. [No doubt it will divide Ives scholars, but it is undoubtedly a fascinating achievement.]…well recorded, idiomatic performances all round—a real Ives discovery.

American Record Guide, September 2008

James Sinclair leads excellent performances. The Malmo Symphony sounds comfortable in the American idiom, and the recording is spacious, sweet sounding in the strings, more concert hall than “hi fi”, and strong (maybe too strong) in the bass…The 1914 score is worth hearing, and Sinclair’s First Set stands well with Dohnanyi, Thomas, and Hanson. The Second is more polished than the Gerhard Samuel on Centaur and more exciting and expressive than the Dohnanyi (particularly in Sinclair’s broader, more effective climax to ‘Hanover Square’), There is no competition in the Third…You should have the Naxos regardless of what other Ives recordings you have…

Stephen Hall
MusicWeb International, August 2008

To have Charles Ives’ Orchestral Sets on a single disc would have been a fantasy twenty years ago…The Malmö Symphony Orchestra and Chorus show its international standing, superb recording and production and all under conductor James Sinclair. Celebrity conductors have their place but some music also needs a scholar by training who conducts with innate authority; that is a description of James B Sinclair…This Naxos release is a great moment in the history of recorded music.

Bob McQuiston
Classical Lost and Found, July 2008

Sinclair coaxes magnificent performances of everything here from the Malmö Symphony Orchestra (with a little help from The Malmö Chamber Chorus in the second set). If you enjoyed this release, make sure you investigate another from Naxos (8.55917), which includes a fascinating elaboration of a piano concerto Ives was working on.

The recorded sound is excellent with just the right amount of acoustic bloom to assure a wide, but well-focused soundstage. The orchestral timbre is very natural over the considerable dynamic range associated with this music. This is definitely a “sheep-and-goats” disc when it comes to selecting new audio equipment.

Stephen Graham, July 2008

Naxos continues its fine American Classics series with this solid new release that groups together Charles Ives’ Three Orchestral Sets, the third of which is appearing on record for the first time after some generally decent reconstructive editorial work on its behalf by David Gray Porter and Nors Josephson. James Sinclair conducts with his usual flair for Ives’ textural and formal conflicts. If the performance can be said to veer at times towards a slightly too precious intimation of the composer’s sublime leanings in the slow sections, it is nevertheless also true that the internal logic of collage that is fundamentally proposed by the music (encapsulated in the very idea of the set as genre) is happily upheld and enjoyed by conductor and band elsewhere.

Uncle Dave Lewis, June 2008

We thought we were done with the orchestral music of Charles Ives once the first, of now several, realizations of his never finished Universe Symphony was rolled out in 1993. Who would have thought that 15 years later that another never finished—and rumored “unfinishable”—Ives work, the Orchestral Set No. 3, would come so late out of the gate? On Naxos’s Charles Ives: The Three Orchestral Sets, James Sinclair and the Malmö Symphony present this piece for the first time, finally putting a period to the long sentence of his orchestral output.

Ives once commented that he had written “seven symphonies,” once taken to mean the four numbered symphonies, Ives’ two completed orchestral “sets,” and the “Universe.” The Holidays Symphony was made up of movements conceived individually and only combined as an afterthought, one that Ives authorized but thought not very successful. The three large orchestral works Ives designated as “sets” are distinct from the ten suites of pieces Ives collected under the same rubric for chamber or theater orchestra. Naxos’s Charles Ives: The Three Orchestral Sets heralds the first complete rendering on record of the Orchestral Set No. 3, a late work that Ives worked on primarily between 1919 and 1926, although, as in the case of the Universe Symphony, occasional additions to the score were made into the 1950s. In 1919–26, however, Ives was incredibly busy with other projects: the compilation of 114 Songs and the first publication of the Concord Sonata, not to mention the creation of numerous other ambitious compositions including The Celestial Railroad, Four Transcriptions from “Emerson,” and the Three Pieces for Quarter-Tone Piano. That Ives found the time and energy to pursue all of this creative work in addition to holding down his full-time job as an insurance executive in the wake of a debilitating heart attack that permanently sapped his strength is, in itself, a seemingly superhuman achievement.

The “Sets” are performed expertly and authoritatively by conductor and chief Ives Society editor James Sinclair with the Malmö Symphony Orchestra; the Malmö’s Chamber Choir likewise joins in on the “From Hanover Square North” movement in the Orchestral Set No. 2. The Third Orchestral Set is not the only premiere on Charles Ives: The Three Orchestral Sets: three distinct versions exist of Orchestral Set No. 1, also known as “Three Places in New England,” the most familiar being a revision from about 1930 made at the request of Nicolas Slonimsky in a reduced orchestration. At one time, to achieve a “full orchestration,” conductors simply magnified and doubled parts from the chamber orchestra version, a practice that does not represent Ives’ intentions. Sinclair first edited and introduced the genuine full orchestration in the 1970s, which Ives had unwittingly endangered by cutting and pasting many of its parts into the smaller score. However, Sinclair uncovered the first (1913–14) version of the First Orchestral Set, which departs from the familiar one in many respects: it has a longer “Impression of the St. Gaudens in the Boston Common,” a shorter and more direct “Housatonic at Stockbridge,” and a less dense “Putnam’s Camp” with a number of variant readings. It is unlikely to overtake the later editions in terms of popularity—the more developed “Housatonic at Stockbridge” is certainly to be preferred overall—but, as in the case of all Ives’ variants, it is fascinating, and one is grateful to hear it at last.

As to the Orchestral Set No. 3, the first movement “Andante moderato” has been known for some time, recorded in 1979 for an obscure LP release along with some works of Roy Harris. This movement was always a tantalizing fragment that made one want to hear the whole; as Ives returns in it, for a final time, to the kinds of stacked arrangements of perfect intervals that distinguishes his 1907 orchestral piece Central Park in the Dark. Some aspects of this approach continue throughout remaining movements as well. The second movement “comedy of Danbury reminiscence”—as John Kirkpatrick referred to it—returns to the 1904 Overture and March 1776 to patch over some sections and is the weakest movement of the three. Its seamy, cut and paste structure is more glaringly apparent than in any other piece of Ives that uses a similar construction, and as such is a rare dud among his output. However, once finished it dovetails directly into Nors Josephson’s very well achieved realization of Ives’s third movement “Andante,” of which the source material is particularly scanty, but nevertheless yields a 13-minute movement that is one of Ives’ definitive statements, and perhaps the most valedictory one in his orchestral music. This is a transcendental conception par excellence, in which Ives revisits elements from various works, the Browning Overture most obviously, and weaves them into a dreamy, otherworldly and profound atmosphere that is uniquely his. Careful ears will pick out a short passage drawn from the Concord Sonata—is this the only time Ives ever tried to orchestrate from that work? If so, Henry Brant’s impulses to create a full orchestration of the Concord were on the right track after all.

One wants to be a little cautious regarding Jan Swafford’s assertion that the Orchestral Set No. 3 as “the most profound discovery of the many and ongoing efforts to reconstruct Ives’ incomplete works” as it is hard to imagine music that is more profound than the Universe Symphony. However, the multiplicity of solutions in regard to that work—and the intense disagreement among Ives’ editors as to what represents his intentions there—can be seen as a rather disconcerting development, although multiple viewpoints on its realization is what Ives wanted. The Orchestral Set No. 3 is, by comparison, sufficiently finite, recognizable as “Ivesian” and further confirms Charles Ives’ place as an American composer whose voice spoke to the whole world.

John Sunier
Audiophile Audition, June 2008

Ives liked to put together smaller independently-composed orchestral pieces into a sort of suite he called a “set.” Sinclair is an Ives historian and researcher, and he engaged two others to reconstruct the unfinished pieces which constituted the composer’s Third Orchestral Set, so this is its recording premiere. (It’s a sad comment on the musician’s union and absurd costs of recording symphony orchestras in the U.S. that this echt-Americana project had to be recorded in Sweden!)

But it’s a winner in every way. The more familiar First Set is given a rousing performance that preserves every bit of its Americana. The sonics are good, but this material cries out for hi-res surround sound. Since that’s not possible, I auditioned it on headphones to better appreciate Ives’ “conflicts-be-damned” musical approach. I sat in the sun on my deck with eyes closed, trying to get into Ives’ stream-of-consciousness musical meanderings, and it worked beautifully. The Hanover Square piece ending the Second Set is especially moving. The tragic day of which Ives speaks was May 7, 1915, when the U.S. learned that a German submarine had sunk the Lusitania ocean liner, making WWI imminent. The crowd at the Hanover Square train station where Ives was waiting suddenly broke into a gospel hymn.

The unfinished Third Set was the only one Ives had planned as a whole from the start. Only the center of the three pieces has a program title; he didn’t get that far with the other two due to his serious problems with diabetes and a heart attack. Both of the Andante movements have a quiet and atmospheric mood which Ives experts dub “late-Ives Sublime Style.” The center portion is most lively, as befits its title. It quotes with much glee many tunes from the composer’s youth. The discovery of this Third Set is felt by Ives scholars to be a profound landmark in their ongoing efforts to reconstruct the uncompleted works of the composer.

David Hurwitz, June 2008

Of all the composers on whom modern musicology is inflicting its current “completion mania”, the cause of Ives makes more sense than most. His manuscripts were a mess, his decision-making random, and much of his music consists of “works in progress”. He was working on a Third Set for orchestra in the late 1920s when he gave up composing, and with the exception of the last movement—that at 12 minutes lasts way too long—this collaboration between David Gray Porter and Nors Josephson comes across as pretty convincing. Certainly this is true of Porter’s reconstruction of the first two movements (of three).

James Sinclair conducts Ives with unflagging confidence and expertise. He uses the first version (1914) of Three Places in New England—less angular than the chamber orchestral revision, with its prominent piano part—and the result sounds markedly less radical, more “late Romantic”, and that’s a refreshing change. Now that the shock value of Ives has largely worn off, we need to be able to experience his works simply as good music, and Sinclair makes that case here, as he also does in the Second Set. This neglected piece is every bit as fine as the more popular Three Places, and it deserves as much attention. Warmly detailed engineering keeps the often dense textures clear, and the Malmö orchestra plays with an easy naturalness that goes hand in hand with Sinclair’s sure guidance.

David Denton
David's Review Corner, May 2008

As part of their complete cycle of the orchestral works of Charles Ives, Naxos here offer the world premiere recording of the Three Orchestra Sets.Born into a musical family, the young Charles received his first formal training from his father, a musical ‘jack-of-all-trades’. Though he was to continue his musical education while at University, it was in the field of insurance that he was to build a highly successful career, fitting his love of composition into weekends and holidays. From his father he inherited a passion for innovation, his most crazy ideas expressed in musical terms. Though he composed symphonies in his student days, it may have been a reluctance to follow convention or an uncertainty into his mastery of symphonic form that led him to devise the title ‘Set’. There he could indulge his thoughts in relatively short spans of music brought together only by their similar ideas. The First was completed in 1913–14 and was variously entitled Three Places in New England or A New England Symphony. The Second Set, in a similar slow-fast-slow format, followed five years later, but it was while compiling the Third Set that he suffered a complete breakdown in his ability to compose, and for the last 27 years of his life was unable to add almost anything new to his list of works. The three parts of the set were left more complete than many thought, and has been so tastefully reconstructed by David Gray Porter and Nors Josephson that it sounds pure Ives. Having devoted much of his conducting career to championing Ives, James Sinclair offers such arresting performances from the outstanding Malmo Orchestra that this will be a difficult benchmark for others to follow. He has that ability of creating clarity in pages that are black with notes, and never tries to hide the fact that many of the ideas are outlandish, and revels in their bizarre nature. He has the Malmo Symphony relishing the moments of pure virtuosity, the recording high on impact and remarkable in its clarity. A masterpiece in every respect.

Naxos Records, a member of the Naxos Music Group