It has been written that Charles Ives, upon hearing a man hissing at a performance of "Men and Mountains," by Carl Ruggles, turned around and exclaimed, "When you hear strong masculine music like this, sit up and USE YOUR EARS LIKE A MAN!" The story might be apocryphal; Ives' appreciation of the music of Ruggles is not. I have long enjoyed the music of both men; my regret is that Ruggles left behind so little in comparison to the output of Ives, although what we have is, in general, better crafted than all but a dozen or so Ives' pieces.
This CD opens with Ruggles' "Sun-Treader", which was inspired by Robert Browning's poem 'Pauline', in which is the line, "Sun-treader, light and life be thine forever." This is a craggy work, episodic in nature (it has six sections which are played without a pause), moderately dissonant, but with strong tonal centers. Ruggles was not a "modernist" in any sense of the term that a music student of the 1970s and beyond would consider it, but he definitely wrote "modern" music. Nor was he enamored (as Ives was) of the "everything including the kitchen sink" method of thematic layering. His works, of which this is his longest (16 minutes), are tightly constructed: they start from a point, and continue logically, ending where it seems almost inevitable that they should end. Michael Tilson Thomas obviously enjoys it, and he has total command of the Boston SO, which puts its heart and soul into the performance. This CD is worth buying solely for this piece.
The companion pieces are estimable works by two other "modern" Americans. William Shuman's Violin Concerto is almost as craggy in spots as the Ruggles, but it also has many moments of tender lyricism. It is definitely a display piece (unlike, say, the first two movements of Samuel Barber's Concerto), and Paul Zukovsky, known as a champion of modern violin music, gives a very creditable performance. Unfortunately, there are only two other recordings in print, which makes it hard to do a comparison, but if one goes by Zukovsky's performance of the first movement candenza, this is a very good performance, at least. FWIW, several reviews of the other two laud them both, but still hold this recording, the first ever, as the exemplar. As for Walter Piston's Second Symphony, this is a fine "filler" for the other two works. This may come across as "damning with faint praise", but I mean it in this sense: after all the storm and stress of the first two works, this is a pleasant contrast. Piston is not known for writing stark, craggy music, although he was no stranger to the 12-tone system of Schoenberg, and he did write music in that style. But what he is best known for is his ballet "The Incredible Flutist", and for most folks, that is *all* he wrote, much as Johann Pachelbel only wrote the Canon in D. This Symphony comes just five years after the ballet, and it is in much the same melodic and harmonic vein. There is nothing striking about it, but then, there really is nothing "striking" about Beethoven's Second Symphony, either. The Piston is good, solid, enjoyable American music in the same vein as Copland's ballets and Grofe's many suites.
The engineering on this CD is very good. The violinist is highlighted well in the Concerto, and neither overwhelms nor is overwhelmed by the orchestra. In the other two pieces, all forces are nicely balanced, and the percussion - strong use is made of it in all three works - come across well, but do not drown out the rest of the musicians. MTT seems to enjoy these two as much as he does the Ruggles, and BSO are completely under his command throughout. There may be negatives about this CD, but I can't find any big ones. As for the music, the only way to tell if you will like it is to listen to it with your ears, like a Human.