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Linn Records

Charles IVES (1874-1954)
The Celestial Country (1898-99)
Silence Unaccompanied a set of works that includes: "Adagio Sostenuto" (c. 1912); "Evening" (1921); "Afterglow" (1919); "The Collection" (1920); "Duty/Vita/Duty" (c. 1913); "Carol" (1894); "Sunrise" (1926); "Hymn" (c. 1904/1921); "Mists" (1910)
Martha Hart, mezzo-soprano
Dan Dressen, tenor
Michael Jorgensen, baritone
John Ferguson, organ
Mark S. Johnson, piano
Cynthia Stokes, alto flute
String Quartet: Charles Gray, violin; Lucinda Marvin, violin; Annalee Wolf, viola; David Carter, cello
The St. Olaf Choir and Chamber Ensemble/Anton Armstrong
Recorded April 16-19, 2002 at Wooddale Church, Minneapolis, Minnesota
LINN CKD 203 [60.38]

The major work on this disc, "The Celestial Country," is one of Ivesí earliest multi-movement compositions. It dates from approximately the same period as his First Symphony and First String Quartet. However, unlike the First Symphony and First String Quartet, this sacred cantata received its first performance while Ives was still a young man, not long after he had composed it. The work was premiered on April 19, 1902 at the Central Presbyterian Church in New York City, where Ives served as church organist. Ironically, not long after premiering the work, Ives resigned his post as organist and began his long period of artistic isolation and maturation. I think that the experience convinced Ives that he couldn't compose music that would satisfy social expectations and also satisfy his own artistic impulses. Later, he would scrawl the words "Damned rot and worse!" across a favourably written newspaper review of the performance.
Unlike the works of Ivesí maturity, "The Celestial Country" is a fairly conventional composition that was heavily indebted to other composers of the period, including Ivesí music professor at Yale, Horatio Parker. In fact, Ives mistakenly believed that he was setting the same verse that Parker used in his cantata "Hora novissima." In reality, the words from "The Celestial Country" are derived from English churchman Henry Alfordís hymn "Forward! Be Our Watchword." As Ivesí biographer Jan Swafford notes, "The treacly religiosity of Alfordís title is an indication of the [musical compositionís] style. He exhorts the Pilgrim to Climb the Path Ever Forward and Faint Not in His Journey Toward the Light, Ďthither, onward, thither / In the spiritís might,í and so on" (CEI: A Life With Music, p. 159). Despite the workís shortcomings, it is worth exploring for a more complete understanding of Ivesí development as a composer.
Other than the Linn recording at hand, I am aware of three other recordings of this work. None of these are currently in print. Harold Farberman and the LSO with the Schutz Choir of London made the first recording of "The Celestial Country." Most recently it was available on a Citadel compact disc (Citadel CTD 88126). Gregg Smith conducted the Gregg Smith Singers and the Columbia Chamber Ensemble in the second recording of the work. This was included in the "Charles Ives: 100th Anniversary" box set issued by Columbia in 1974 (Columbia Masterworks M4 32504). It has never been issued on CD. Stephen Cleobury conducted the New London Orchestra and BBC Singers on a Collins Classics CD (1479).
How do Anton Armstrong and the St. Olaf Choir and Chamber Ensemble compare? They 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 Farbermanís performance with the LSO. And the Gregg Smith Singersí performance is even more satisfying. It sounds very Ivesian. So, in terms of musical enjoyment, I would give the Columbia recordings top honors. (Sony should re-issue all of Gregg Smithís recordings of Ivesí choral works. Most of these have never made the transition from LP to compact disc.)
Compared to Farbermanís grand intensity and Smithís rough-hewn vitality, you might even call Armstrongís reading "nice," Ivesí euphemism for music that lacks vitality and lifeblood rowdiness. But, as we have seen, 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 discóeven if itís 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 Ivesí 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 Ivesí 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 Ivesí 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"óespecially since this is the only recording that is currently available.

Scott Mortensen

To view Scott Mortensenís Charles Ives web site, go to:


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