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Philip Mead / "Varied Air, Charles Ives: The Piano Music"
[Metier MSV CD92037 (a+b); available in the U.K.] This recording includes:

  • Piano Sonata No. 2, "Concord, Mass., 1840-1860"
  • Three Page Sonata
  • Varied Air and Variations
  • Study No. 2 for Ears or Aural and Mental Exercise!!!
  • Study No. 9, The Anti-Abolitionist Riots in the 1830's and 1840's
  • Waltz-Rondo
  • Piano Sonata No. 1
  • Study No. 20: March, Study in even durations-unevenly divided
  • Study No. 21, Some South-Paw Pitching!
  • Study No. 22
  • Study No. 23, Baseball Take-Off
  • Set of Five Take-Offs

Mead's two-disc collection of piano works is an excellent introduction to Ives' music for piano. Along with his excellent readings of the First Piano Sonata and Second Piano Sonata, this set includes a selection of shorter works. Perhaps most notable among these is Mead's wonderful reading of the "Three Page Sonata." His reading is much quicker than Berman's (6.10 compared 8.00). But, rather than sounding rushed, Mead's tempo is entirely convincing and the whole work is vividly characterized. Mead is also adept at realizing the fantastical, evocative elements in this music. Listen to his "Varied Air and Variations." It's haunting. The only downside to these performances is the quality of recorded sound. The recording sounds muffled. Recommended, as long as you don't mind sub-par sound.

Charles Ives, piano / "Ives Plays Ives" (CRI CD 810) This recording includes:

  • Four Transcriptions from "Emerson"
  • Study No. 11
  • Study No. 9, "The Anti-Abolitionist Riots"
  • Study No. 2
  • Study No. 23 (fragment)
  • "Three Improvisations," Nos. 1& 3
  • "Emerson" movement (fragments) from Piano Sonata No. 2, Concord
  • They Are There!
  • March No. 6 for Piano, with "Here's to Good Old Yale"
  • "The Alcotts" movement (complete) from Piano Sonata No. 2, "Concord"
  • Other fragments of works

This recording collects the complete extant recordings that Charles Ives ever made of himself playing the piano. Most of the disc consists of fragments rather than complete works. Also, the sound quality varies from bad to barely listenable. (The recordings were made from 1933 to 1943.) However, the longest work included on the disc is a complete take of "The Alcotts," from the Second Piano Sonata. And there are a few other examples of Ives' breath-taking artistry at the piano, despite the sonic limitations of the recordings.

Donald Berman / "The Unknown Ives" (CRI CD 811) This recordings includes:

  • Three-Page Sonata
  • Studies Nos. 6, 7, 8
  • Study No. 9, "The Anti-Abolitionist Riots"
  • Study No. 15, 16/19, and 23
  • Set of Five Take-Offs: The Seen And Unseen Or Sweet And Tough
  • Set of Five Take-Offs: Rough And Ready Or The Jumping Frog
  • Set of Five Take-Offs: Song Without (Good) Words Set of Five Take-Offs: Scene Episode
  • Set of Five Take-Offs: Bad Resolutions And Good One
  • Study No. 20, 22
  • Study No. 21, "Some Southpaw Pitching"
  • Evocations, for piano "Four Chants" by Carl Ruggles

This recording collects some of the best of Ives' piano works--aside from the sonatas. Berman's performances are very idiomatic and convincing. The Ruggles works are excellent as well. Recommended.

Donna Coleman (Etcetera KTC 1147) This recording includes:

  • Piano Sonata No. 1
  • Study No. 20
  • Study No. 21 "Some Southpaw Pitching"
  • Study No. 23
  • "Varied Air & Variations"
  • Waltz-Rondo

These shorter works offer even more reason to track down Coleman's fine recording of the First Sonata. Again, some of these are more meditative than you might expect, but Coleman's performances are consistently convincing. I especially like her rendition of Study No. 23, with it's borrowings from "Hello, Ma Baby!" The "Varied Air & Variations" is excellent too, full of billowy, diaphanous notes and mysterious pauses.

Donna Coleman (EtCetera KTC 1079) This recording includes:

Coleman offers very strong performances of the "Three Page Sonata" and the Emerson Transcriptions. Very much like her reading of the "Concord" Sonata, these are dark-chocolate performances, rich and meditative. [I must admit that I don't see the connection between the performances and the CD cover photo with it's nondescript, inhuman skyscraper towering over the treetops. Oh well. It certainly is an interesting image, regardless of any connection that eludes me.]

Shura Cherkassky / "80th Birthday Recital from Carnegie Hall" (Decca 433 654-2DH) This recording includes Ives' "Three Page Sonata," and works by Bach, Schumann, Chopin, Hofmann, Tchaikovsky, and Gould.

Cherkassky turns in a bravura, high-voltage performance of the "Three Page Sonata." Eighty years old or no, this guy can pound the piano! This isn't the most nuanced of performances; others like Mead find a path that's more "inside" the music. But this is undeniably exciting, brilliant pianism, and the audience roars with approval as the performance ends.

Joel Sachs; Cheryl Seltzer / "A Continuum Portrait 3: Charles Ives" (Naxos 8.559194)

This recording includes:

Pianist Joel Sachs turns in a superb performance of the "Five Take-Offs." Each of these short pieces has an improvisatory quality--even if they are not, strictly speaking, improvised. The set varies enormously in tone from piece to piece, from gentle ruminations to clangourous explorations. Taken as a whole, the set offers a surprisingly well-rounded picture of Ives' approach to composition for the piano. The final set on the disc is one of Ives' most overtly experimental works, "Three Quarter-Tone Pieces." In this piano duo, one of the pianos is tuned a quarter-tone apart from the other. The effect can be unsettling, as if you were hearing music through shimmering water. At other times, the music sounds otherworldly, evoking memories of the Theremin (and science-fiction movies from the fifties). And sometimes you might find yourself laughing aloud. For example, when Ives quotes "America" in the final movement, it's reminiscent of his playful "Variations on America" for organ from his teenage years, now transmuted once again. (Incidentally, in the same movement Ives also quotes "La Marseillaise," since he'd composed the work for a concert of the Franco-American Musical Society!)

Alan Mandel / "Charles Ives: Works for Piano" (Vox Box CD3X 3034, 3 discs) This recording includes:

  • Three Page Sonata
  • Song Without (Good) Words
  • Study No. 9, "The Anti-Abolitionist Riots"
  • Study No. 21, "Some Southpaw Pitching"
  • Studies Nos. 22, 20, 18, 15, 2, 8, 7, 6, 5
  • "Rough and Ready"
  • Scene Episode
  • Waltz-Rondo March in G and D, "Here's to Good Old Yale"
  • The Celestial Railroad
  • The Seen and The Unseen
  • Anthem - Processional
  • Bad Resolutions and Good
  • Storm and Distress
  • Allegretto (Invention)
  • Baseball Take-Off
  • Varied Air and Variations
  • Piano Sonata No. 1
  • Piano Sonata No. 2, Concord

This pioneering set, which originally appeared on Desto Records, features all of Ives' works for piano in a three-disc budget-priced collection. Taken as a whole, the set is quite impressive. But, in most cases, I find Mead and Berman more persuasive. (The Mandel recordings are also marred by poor sound.)

Anthony de Mare / "Wizards and Wildmen" (CRI 837) This recording includes piano works by Henry Cowell and Lou Harrison. It also includes the following works by Charles Ives:

  • "The Alcotts" movement (complete) from Piano Sonata No. 2, "Concord"
  • Three Improvisations
  • Study No. 22
  • The Celestial Railroad

Anthony de Mare's recording contain's four works by Charles Ives, and they are all very fine performances. But what makes this disc most compelling is the chance to hear Ives' works along with the piano music of two of his closest musical friends and advocates, Henry Cowell and Lou Harrison. As such, this disc provides an excellent background andcontext for Ives' piano works. The recorded sound is excellent, and the liner notes by Bob Gilmore are particularly effective at explaining the relationships between these men and their works.

Luise Vosgerchain / "Charles Ives: Pieces for Chamber Orchestra / Songs" (Cambridge CRS 1804, out of print) This recording includes:

Luise Vosgerchain's traversal of the "Three Page Sonata" is heavy on the mystery. She also uses a celeste, which adds to its otherworldly quality. This is a solid performance--even if it isn't earth-shattering. It's a performance that adds another aspect to a varied and interesting program. It's worth tracking this LP down.

Other Recordings

Other recordings of Ives' piano music include:

  • Donald Berman (piano) / "The Unknown Ives, Volume 2" (New World 80618)
  • James Sykes (piano) / "Charles Ives: The Short Piano Pieces" (Folkways FW03348, includes the "Three Page Sonata" and other works)

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Original text copyright Scott Mortensen 2001-2005