The American composer Henry Brant, who died in 2008 at the age of 94, is chiefly remembered for his highly original “spatial music.” Brant wrote more than 100 works in which the physical placement of instruments or voices in the performance space was a fundamental compositional component, developing this technique several years before Karlheinz Stockhausen, more famously, did so in Europe. He also had a practical side—even leading-edge composers have to eat—helping to score high-profile Hollywood movies including Cleopatra and 2001: A Space Odyssey. Brant acknowledged the critical influence of Charles Ives on his own concert music and brought to bear his skills as an orchestrator to produce A Concord Symphony, based on Ives’ Second Piano Sonata.
Brant worked on the orchestral realization of the Concord Sonata for 35 years: it was finally performed in 1995. The 50-minute symphony is not an attempt to score the keyboard work as Ives would have—the earlier composer was just too idiosyncratic a musician for that to be a realistic goal—but, rather, in Brant’s words “to create a symphonic idiom which would ride in the orchestra with athletic surefootedness and present Ives’ astounding music in clear, vivid, and intense sonorities.” He succeeded admirably, providing a brilliant illumin- ation of the piano work’s dense, complex textures. Despite Brant’s disclaimer, there are parts of the Symphony—the circus band episode in the “Hawthorne” movement, for instance—that do sound like they could have been lifted from one of Ives’ orchestral pieces.
Michael Tilson Thomas knows a thing or two about Ives. His recordings of the four symphonies and other works with the Concertgebouw and Chicago Symphony Orchestras have not been surpassed, and his identification with the musical souls of both Ives and Brant is palpable in this stunning performance. The San Francisco Symphony again demonstrates that, whether the repertoire is Beethoven, Mahler, or Ives, it is arguably the finest American orchestra of the present day.
The SACD is filled out with Aaron Copland’s youthful Organ Symphony. This was the work that put Copland on the map as a bold modernist when the New York Philharmonic with Nadia Boulanger as the keyboard soloist premiered it in 1925. (Conductor Walter Damrosch commented that “If a young man can write a symphony like this at twenty-three, in five years he’ll be ready to commit murder!”) The mystery of the first movement, the demonic drive of the second, and the powerful perorations of the finale are realized to perfection, a reading that trumps even that of Leonard Bernstein and E. Power Biggs from the 1960s. Paul Jacobs, the organist, comprehends that this isn’t a concerto and behaves accordingly.
SFS Media has employed a different production team than with the immensely successful MTT Mahler cycle: Jack Vad is the producer and audiophiles will recognize several of the engineers as hailing from Boston’s estimable Soundmirror studio. Especially in surround, a stunning transparency lays bare the mastery of Brant’s transcription; the challenge of realistically integrating the output of a large pipe organ and a full symphony orchestra is met quite successfully in the Copland work. The soundstage is gratifyingly expansive and organ pedals possess satisfying weight.