James E. Jordon, one of the organists featured on this Gloriae Dei Cantores disc, turns in an excellent performance of the "Variations on America." Along with Biggs recording, which has never been issued on compact disc, this one earns my top rating. It's a free, improvisatory performance, very much in the spirit of Ives. Hearing this, it's not hard to imagine a young Charlie Ives grinning impishly at the keyboard while he performed this work as a teenager. In fact, the whole disc is a gas. Another highlight: William Bolcom's variation on "What a Friend We Have in Jesus." Soulful stuff.
E. Power Biggs (organ) / "Charles Ives: The 100th Anniversary" (Columbia Masterworks M4 32504; the 5-LP set includes other works by Ives, out of print)
Biggs recording of the "Variations on America" was the work's premiere on disc, and it is still one of the best that I've heard. This is another recording that Sony should re-issue. If you're intent on hunting down a vinyl copy, you can also hear this same performance on "E.Powers Bigg's Greatest Hits" (CBS MS7269).
GŁnther Kaunzinger / "Amerikanische Orgelmusik" (Christophorus CD 74521) This recording includes:
I really like Kaunzinger's performance of the "Variations on America." It sounds like he was having a whale of a time while he was making this recording--and that is precisely the spirit of the work. Kauzinger doesn't shy away from some of the more dissonant tones that occasionally crop up in the piece either. There's nothing dour or reticent about it. In addition, this is fantastic-sounding organ. The other works on the disc are interesting too. Recommended for those who looking for a solid version of the "Variations on America" and for organ mavens in general. (One interesting item: This recording was obviously made for German-speaking audiences. When you get to "The Battle of Trenton" by James Hewitt, the speaker's language is German rather than English. Since I didn't expect it, it came as a bit of a surprise. It's good for a giggle or two--unless you're German. In that case, I suppose it'll sound perfectly natural.)
Simon Preston (organ) / "Variations on America: Organ Spectacular" (Argo 421731, out of print) This recording includes:
Preston turns in a solid performance of Ives' "Variations on America," but it's a tad bit staid compared to Jordan and Biggs. The remainder of the disc is made up compositions that were popular as recital pieces around the end of the 19th century. Of course, Ives' composition wouldn't have been heard at that time--unless you happened to be a native of Danbury, Connecticut. Ives premiered the work himself in 1891, but his subsequent artistic isolation meant that the "Variations on America" didn't receive its "second" premiere until 1960!
Andrew Davis (organ) / (IMP Carlton Classics 30367 00942, out of print) This recording includes:
This is a good performance, but I think that Jordan, Biggs and Kaunzinger are better. Davis doesn't sound quite as spontaneous or improvisatory as they do. That said, this is still an interesting disc. Davis seems more at home in the Bach warhorses, and the Messiaen is compelling too.
Joyce Jones (organ) / "Joyce Jones at the Organ of Cadet Chapel, West Point, New York" (Motette 11491) This recording includes:
According to the liner notes, this is the world's largest church organ. At West Point of all places! Despite the monstrous organ, Jones' version of the Variations on "America" strikes me as dour and cautious. Other organist dig deeper into the piece and come up with more color and pizzazz.
Other recordings of Ives' organ works include (unless stated otherwise, these recordings include the Variations on "America" only):