Scott Mortensen’s Charles
Ives web site
When the Musical Heritage
Society originally released this recording,
it was titled "Charles Ives: The
Visionary". And it’s still an apt
description for this collection, which
Naxos has reissued in its American Classics
series. The ensemble Continuum, led
by Cheryl Seltzer and Joel Sachs, offers
a fascinating program of music by Charles
Ives at his "ear-stretching"
best. Ives famously remarked that "Beauty
in music is too often confused with
something that lets the ear lie back
in an easy chair." With the works assembled
for this collection, the Continuum ensemble
presents a selection of Ives’ music
that strives for a new sort of beauty,
one that doesn’t rely on conventional
forms or sounds.
The program begins
with three songs performed by soprano
Victoria Villamil. Her version of "The
Housatonic at Stockbridge" is very
fine, even if it does not erase memories
of other fine recordings by Jan DeGaetani
and Roberta Alexander. I especially
like Villamil’s reading of "On
the Antipodes". I can only imagine
how difficult it must be to sing this
thorny piece, but she pulls it off convincingly.
It’s also pleasing to hear the ensemble
join the voice and piano as the song
reaches its climax.
"The Gong on the
Hook and Ladder" is one of Ives’
sound paintings, very much along the
lines of "Central Park in the Dark"
or "Over the Pavements". In
this case, the clanging gong is sounded
by the piano, while the rest of the
ensemble scrambles along in support.
"Hallowe’en" is suitably mystical.
It’s yet another of Ives’ evocations
of a childhood holiday scene. The ensemble
also performs "In Re Con Moto et
al" with precision and authority.
Soprano Sheila Schonbrun
does an excellent job of evoking the
otherworldly quality of dawn, just before
the sun crests the horizon, in "Sunrise",
one of last compositions that Ives ever
completed. She also sings beautifully
in "Remembrance", Ives elegiac
piece dedicated to his father’s memory.
This is probably the most conventionally
melodious piece on the disc, although
it clocks in at barely more than one
minute. In contrast, "Aeschylus
and Sophocles" finds both sopranos
singing a piece that seems to come from
the same strange and forbidding place
as Berg’s Wozzeck.
Pianist Joel Sachs
turns in a superb performance of the
"Five Take-Offs". Again, these
are all short pieces, and each of them
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!
This Naxos "Continuum
Portrait" is a fine collection.
Although none of the works exceed 5:35
(and most are much shorter), this is
an intelligently programmed recital
that does a fine job of presenting these
sometimes thorny works in a splendid
light. This is a compelling listening
experience, and recommended to all those
who are interested in Ives’ music or
twentieth century music in general.