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Charles IVES (1874-1954)
A Continuum Portrait 3: Piano, Chamber, and Vocal Works

The Housatonic at Stockbridge (1908) [3:24]
Soliloquy, or a Study in 7ths and Other Things (c. 1916-17) [0:49]
On the Antipodes (c. 1922-23) [2:37]
Victoria Villamil (soprano); Cheryl Seltzer, Joel Sachs (pianos); ensemble
The Gong on the Hook and Ladder (original version) (c. 1912) [1:28]
Hallowe’en (c. 1914) [2:33]
In Re Con Moto et al (c. 1915-16) [3:02]
Various members of the ensemble
Sunrise (1926) [5:35]
Sheila Schonbrun (soprano); Mia Wu (violin); Cheryl Seltzer (piano)
Remembrance (1921) [1:01]
Sheila Schonbrun (soprano); Eva Gruesser (violin); Cheryl Seltzer (piano)
Aeschylus and Sophocles (1922- c. 1924) [4:10]
Sheila Schonbrun, Victoria Villamil (sopranos); ensemble
Five Take Offs (c. 1906-09) [12:54]
Joel Sachs (piano)
Three Quarter-Tone Pieces (1923-24) [11:22]
Joel Sachs, Cheryl Seltzer (pianos)
Continuum/Cheryl Seltzer; Joel Sachs (Directors)
Recorded at Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church, NYC in June 1986 and Middle Tennessee State University, Murfreesboro, TN in September 1987


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.

Scott Mortensen

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