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As of January 2006, there are few CDs available that feature more than one of Ives' choral works. Unless you're willing to track down some old LPs, you're going to have to pick up several CDs to put together a solid collection of his choral music. But if you do spin vinyl, you're in luck because the Gregg Smith Singers Columbia recordings are the most convincing, idiomatic performances that these works have ever received.

Gregg Smith (conductor) / The Gregg Smith Singers, the Ithaca College Concert Choir, the Texas Boys Choir of Fort Worth, and the Columbia Chamber Orchestra / "Charles Ives: Music for Chorus" (Columbia MS 6921, out of print LP) This recording includes:

  • "General William Booth Enters Into Heaven" (Archie Drake, bass)
  • "Serenity"
  • "The Circus Band" (Archie Drake, bass)
  • "December"
  • "The New River"
  • "Three Harvest Home Chorales"
  • Psalm 100
  • Psalm 67
  • Psalm 24
  • Psalm 90 (Esther Martinez, Soprano; Melvin Brown, tenor)
  • Psalm 150

If you want just one recording of Ives' choral music, this is the one to have. The most notable performances on this recording are "General Booth" and Psalm 90. Both of these works rank among Ives' greatest masterpieces. But everything on this disc is worth hearing. Of course Gregg Smith and his choral ensemble are completely attuned to Ives' unique idiom. Everything just sounds right. [By the way, my original copy of this LP was the mono version. A reader of this site was kind enough to send me one of his "spare" stereo versions of the LP. Wow! What a difference! Be sure to get the stereo version. It makes a huge difference in sound quality on this recording--and that's not always the case.]

Gregg Smith (conductor) / The Gregg Smith Singers, the Columbia Chamber Ensemble; also Leopold Stokowski (conductor) / The Gregg Smith Singers, Ithaca College Concert Choir, American Symphony Orchestra / "Charles Ives: The 100th Anniversary"(Columbia Masterworks M4 32504; the 5-LP set includes other works by Ives, out of print) This box set includes the following choral works:

  • "The Celestial Country"
  • "They Are There!"
  • "Majority (Or The Masses)"
  • "An Election"
  • "Lincoln, The Great Commoner"

These are my favorite recordings from this box set--especially the choral works featuring the Gregg Smith Singers conducted by Stokowski. "They Are There!" is rambunctious and rowdy--just like Ives' own recording of the work. It brings a smile to my face whenever I hear it. "An Election" is biting and humorous. The spirit is right on the mark. "The Majority (The Masses)" is also very compelling. But the best of all is probably Ives' setting of Edwin Markham's poem "Lincoln, the Great Commoner." Ives manages to quote everything from "Columbia, Gem of the Ocean" (his favorite) to "The Star Spangled Banner" to "America" in the course of the work. But he also creates something that's very strange and wonderful. A great tribute to our greatest president. Gregg Smith's version of "The Celestial Country" is also my top choice for that "nice" early work. (Smith's recording is less sentimental and treacly than others I've heard.) All of these need works to be re-issued--along with all of the other Gregg Smith Singers recordings!

Gregg Smith (conductor) / The Gregg Smith Singers, the Columbia Chamber Ensemble / "New Music of Charles Ives: Seventeen First Recordings" (Columbia MS 7321, out of print LP) This recording includes:

  • "Let There Be Light"
  • Psalm 14
  • Psalm 54
  • Psalm 25
  • Psalm 135
  • "Walt Whitman"
  • "Duty and Vita"
  • "On the Antipodes"

  • "The Last Reader" (Adrienne Albert, mezzo-soprano)
  • "Luck and Work" (William Feuerstein, baritone)
  • "Like a Sick Eagle" (Adrienne Albert, mezzo-soprano)
  • "Tolerance" (William Feuerstein, baritone)
  • "From the Incantation" (Adrienne Albert, mezzo-soprano)
  • "The Pond" (Adrienne Albert, mezzo-soprano)
  • "At Sea" (William Feuerstein, baritone)
  • "The Children's Hour" (Adrienne Albert, mezzo-soprano)
  • "The Rainbow" (William Feuerstein, baritone)

Like it's companion LP ("Charles Ives: Music for Chorus" / Columbia MS 6921), one half of this recording is dedicated to Ives' sacred music--particularly his Psalm settings--and the other half focuses on secular music. None of the Psalm settings match the incandescent brillance of Psalm 90, which was included on Columbia MS 6921. But these are interesting works and strong performances by the Gregg Smith Singers. Perhaps the most impressive sacred work on this LP is "Let There Be Light," a very early work that is fiercely dissonant and powerful, even though it lasts just two minutes. The LP also includes three secular works for chorus and chamber orchestra. The remainder of the album is a series of songs by Adrienne Albert and William Feuerstein with chamber orchestra accompaniment. Feuerstein turns in some solid performances. But the real gems of this album are the songs by Adrienne Albert. Her performances are utterly beguiling. (Click here for more info about the songs.)

Michael Tilson Thomas / The San Francisco Symphony, The San Francisco Symphony Chorus / "An American Journey" (RCA 09026-63703-2) This recording includes:

Any Ives recording by MTT is a must-have. And this CD is worth tracking down for its version of "General Booth" alone. (Gregg Smith and Archie Drake may wring a bit more rowdiness and gumption from the work, but their old LP version is out of print.) Needless to say, these are convincing, idomatic choral performances. An indispensible disc.

Alden Gilchrist (conductor, organist, and pianist) / Berkeley Chamber Singers / "Charles Ives: Vocal Music" (Musical Heritage Society MHS 1240, out-of-print LP) This recording includes:

  • "Processional"
  • Psalm 24
  • "Turn Ye, Turn Ye"
  • "The Collection"
  • Psalm 67
  • "Three Harvest Home Chorales"
  • "Disclosure" / "Soliloquy" (Judith Nelson, soprano)
  • "Serenity"
  • "Where The Eagle" (Ronald Mortimer, tenor)
  • "In the Mornin'" (Norma Levister, mezzo-soprano)
  • "Christmas Carol" (Sidnee Curtis, soprano)
  • "A Christmas Carol"
  • "General William Booth Enters Into Heaven" (Thomas Bruckner, baritone)

[All performances on the LP include choral accompaniment except for "Disclosure" and "Soliloquy," which are for piano and voice only.]

This rare LP, issued by MHS, is a surprisingly solid recording. These are very convincing, very idomatic performances. It's worth tracking down, especially as a supplement to the seminal Gregg Smith recordings on the Columbia Masterworks label. Incidentally, this LP also includes a performance of "Turn Ye, Turn Ye," which I don't think has been recorded anywhere else.

Dale Warland (conductor) / Dale Warland Singers / "Reincarnations" (Gothic G 49239) This recording includes Ives' setting of Psalm 90 and other works by Fine, Barber, Avshalomov, and Finney.

Ives' setting of Psalm 90 is one of the few compositions that satisfied the composer, a work in which his aims were fully realized. Without a doubt, it's one of his greatest masterpieces. Here, the Dale Warland Singers offer an exemplary reading of the work, the easily best available version on compact disc. (This is reason enough for all Ives fans to track down this recording immediately.) I still marginally prefer the Gregg Smith Singers' reading (Columbia, out of print) for its fervent, ecstatic abandon, but the Dale Warland Singers' approach is compelling too. It's a much more transparent, Apollonian reading, very smooth compared with Gregg Smith's rough ride. The Dale Warland Singers specialize in contemporary choral music, and all of the other compositions on the disc are beautifully realized. Sadly, according to the liner notes, this is the final recording from this ensemble. But it's a fitting final tribute--and required listening for anyone who is interested in hearing one of Ives' greatest achievements.

James Flummerfelt (conductor) / Westminster Choir / Nancianne Parrella (organist) / "Like as a Hart: Psalms and Spiritual Songs" (Chesky CD138) This recording includes Ives' setting of Psalm 67 and various sacred works by other composers.

This compact disc includes a powerful and stirring performance of Ives' setting of Psalm 67.  I think that it may be the only version of this work that is currently in print.  (It doesn't erase memories of the Gregg Smith Singers' version on a Columbia LP, but that one is long out of print.) The other performances this Chesky disc are wonderful too, and the entire CD is recorded beautifully. Strongly recommended, especially if you no longer spin vinyl and the Gregg Smith Singers LP is out of the question.

Elizabeth C. Patterson (conductor) / James E. Jordan, Jr. (organist) / Gloriae Dei Cantores / "Be Glad Then America" (Gloriae Dei Cantores GDCD 008, out of print) This recording includes Ives' setting of Psalm 67 and other works by Billings, Thompson, Bernstein, Ginastera, Thomson, Argento, and Sowerby.

Gloriae Dei Cantores' recording of Ives' setting of Psalm 67 is exceptional. There's an austerity and a stillness about the performance that's very convincing. The sound that the ensemble produces is much more refined than the Gregg Smith Singers, but it's not one bit less effective. Just different. In fact, the whole disc is wonderful. Along with the Ives, I was taken by the three works by William Billings. "Jesus Wept," especially, is a knock-out piece of music and performance. It's sad and beautiful and haunting--all at the same time. Leonard Bernstein's "Chichester Psalms" is given an outstanding performance too. Great music!

Elizabeth C. Patterson (conductor) / James E. Jordan, Jr. (organist) / Gloriae Dei Cantores / "Music of the Americas: 1492 - 1992" (Gloriae Dei Cantores GDCD 010, two disc set, out-of-print) This recording includes Ives' setting of Psalm 135 and works by other composers.

This is another great recording from Elizabeth Patterson and Gloriae Dei Cantores. (Sadly, it's out of print.) This two-disc survey of American choral music is amazing. My only complaint? They need to record more of Ives' music! This estimable ensemble only takes on Ives' Psalm 135 on this set. Again, their performance is not so "rough-and-ready" as the Gregg Smith Singers' performance, but it's convincing on its own terms. Interestingly, the GDC performance lasts 5.27 and the Gregg Smith Singers recording only lasts 2.45. There are some differences in tempo, but not enough to account for this dramatic difference in timing. Listen, and you'll hear a lot more music on the GDC recording. (Clearly, Gregg Smith was using a different score.)

James Flummerfelt (conductor) / Westminster Choir / Glenn Parker, Nancianne Parrella (pianists) / "At Spoleto Festival U.S.A., Charleston, South Carolina" (Gothic G49078) This recording includes Ives "The Circus Band" and works by other composers.

This CD includes a solid recording of Ives' "The Circus Band" among the twenty tracks. Good fun. I only wish there was more Ives.

Harold Farberman / Heinrich Schutz Choir, London Symphony Orchestra (Citadel Records CTD 88126, out of print) This recording includes: "The Celestial Country" by Ives; "Abram in Egypt" by Elinor Remick Warren (with different conductor, orchestra, and chorus).

Farberman and the LSO turn in a forceful and ecstatic performance of Ives' early choral work. More than any other version, Farberman goes for a kind of Mahlerian grandeur and intensity. For the most part, it works. And, while it doesn't sound as idiomatic to my ears as the Gregg Smith version on Columbia, this disc should be far easier to track down than the Smith recording. Unfortunately, this disc is out of print too. As of May 2004, the only version of "The Celestial Country" that is in print is the Anton Armstrong / St. Olaf Choir and Chamber Ensemble recording on Linn (see below).

Anton Armstrong / St. Olaf Choir & Chamber Ensemble (Linn CDK 203) This recording includes:

  • "The Celestial Country"
  • "Adagio Sostenuto"
  • "Evening"
  • "Afterglow"
  • "The Collection"
  • "Duty / Vita / Duty"
  • "Carol"
  • "Sunrise"
  • "Hymn"
  • "Mists"

Anton Armstrong and the St. Olaf Choir and Chamber Ensemble turn in a good, serviceable performance of "The Celestial Country." The choral singing is very polished and blended. In fact, the most compelling aspects of the recording are the sections featuring the chorus a capella (the fifth and eighth sections). However, I should note that the general tone of the interpretation is dour and churchly, even genteel. The Linn disc certainly lacks the powerful, ecstatic quality of Farberman’s performance with the LSO. And the Gregg Smith Singers’ performance is even more satisfying. It sounds very Ivesian. So, in terms of musical enjoyment, I would give the Columbia recordings top honors for this work. Compared to Farberman’s grand intensity and Smith’s rough-hewn vitality, you might even call Armstrong’s reading "nice," Ives’ euphemism for music that lacks vitality and lifeblood rowdiness. But Ives was apparently extremely dissatisfied with "The Celestial Country." One senses that he was disgusted with the work because he thought the music too genteel, quaint, and conventional. In short, after hearing it, Ives thought that "The Celestial Country" itself was too "nice." Given this perspective, one could argue that the Armstrong recording is the most historically-informed performance of "The Celestial Country" ever committed to disc--even if it’s not the most compelling one.

The other recordings on the disc, which conductor Anton Armstrong compiled under the title "Silence Unaccompanied," are a mixture of short choral works, chamber ensemble works, and songs. To my ears, the most effective performances are their choral renditions of Ives’ Christmas "Carol" and "Mists." In both of these works, the choir sounds beautifully ethereal and idiomatic. The songs featuring mezzo-soprano Martha Hart are good, but in most cases she cannot erase memories of another mezzo with an uncanny knack for Ives’ songs, Jan DeGaetani. However, Hart is most effective on the challenging "Sunrise," for violin, piano and voice. This is a compelling performance of one of Ives’ last compositions. The short works for chamber ensemble are good, but they lack the razor-sharpness of the best performances. In summary, the shorter works are variable. Some are excellent; others are merely good. Regardless, most listeners will track down this disc for the sacred cantata "The Celestial Country"--especially since this is the only recording that is currently available.

Lorna Cooke deVaron / The Conservatory Chorus / "Music from the Charles Ives Festival, November 8-11, 1983" (New England Conservatory Series, NEC 122, out of print) This recording includes:

  • "The New River" [choral version]
  • "At the River" [choral version]
  • "Watchman" [choral version]
  • "They Are There" [choral version]

  • Allegro from "Three Quarter-Tone Pieces"
  • "Washington's Birthday"
  • "Variations on America" [arranged for wind ensemble]
  • "A Yale-Princeton Football Game"
  • "The General Slocum"
  • "The Unanswered Question"
  • The final movement, Symphony No. 4

This souvenir LP from the 1983 Ives Festival at the New England Conservatory offers four good choral performances, but they aren't something special. You can track down superior versions elsewhere.

Stephen Cleobury / Choir of King's College, Cambridge / "American Choral Music" (EMI 66787, out of print) This recording includes:

  • Ives' Psalm 90
  • Bernstein's "Chichester Psalms"
  • Schuman's "Carols of Death"
  • Copland's "In the Beginning"
  • Libby Larsen's "How It Thrills Us"

I prefer this performance to Cleobury's reading of Psalm 90 on Collins Classics. (See below.) But, like his other recordings, this is too self-contained and polite. In my mind's ear, this music must be fervent and rough--even jarring, like a ride on wooden roller coaster. There should be a sense of abandon, of ecstacy, of a soul striving to commune with God. But Cleobury clearly envisions the work very differently. (The best digital performance of Ives' Psalm 90 is the Dale Warland Singers' version, though for my money, no one surpasses the Gregg Smith Singers' recording in this repertoire.)

Stephen Cleobury / New London Orchestra / BBC Singers / Duke Quartet (Collins Classics 1479, out of print) This recording includes: "The Celestial Country," "Crossing the Bar," "Easter Carol," Psalm 54, Psalm 67, and Psalm 90.

This recording disappointed me. I had high hopes because the program includes a great cross-section of Ives' sacred choral music. But it just sounds far too staid--and completely un-idiomatic. Listen to the ensemble's pronunciation, especially in the Psalm settings. Ives was not an Englishman! Moreover, these performances have a rounded off quality; the works are drained of their strangeness. But maybe you should give it a try. Maybe you'll like it. I wish I would have.

Other Recordings of Choral Music

Other recordings of Ives' choral music include:

  • Joseph Flummerfelt / The Westminster Choir / "Heaven to Earth" (Avie SACD 46). Includes Ives' setting of Psalm 90 and other choral works by 20th century composers
  • Clara Longstreth / New Amsterdam Singers / "American Journey" (Albany 108). Includes Ives' "Crossing the Bar" and other works by American composers
  • The John Oliver Chorale and Orchestra / "The Celestial Country" (Northeastern NOR CD 226). Includes Ives' "The Celestial Country" and Charles Martin Loeffler's Psalm CXXXVII
  • Elizabeth C. Patterson / Gloriae Dei Cantores / "Make His Praise Glorious" (Gloriae Dei Cantores GDCD 025). Includes Ives' setting of Psalm 90 and Psalm settings by other composers
  • Elizabeth C. Patterson / Gloriae Dei Cantores / "The Lord Is My Shepherd" (Gloriae Dei Cantores GDCD 030). Includes Ives' setting of Psalm 100 and Psalm settings by other composers
  • Loren W. Ponten / Opus 7 Vocal Ensemble / "From Captivity to the Holy City" (Loft Recordings 1032). Includes Ives' setting of Psalm 67 and other choral works
  • Robert Shaw / Robert Shaw Chorale and Orchestra / "The Robert Shaw Chorale on Tour" (RCA Victor LSC 2676, out of print LP). Includes Ives' "Three Harvest Home Chorales" and works by other composers [premiere recording]
  • Gregg Smith / The Gregg Smith Singers (Vox SVBX 5353-3) Includes five songs for chorus by Ives and choral works by other composers
 


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Original text copyright Scott Mortensen 2002-2006