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Charles IVES (1874-1954)
A Song – For Anything - Songs by Charles Ives

Feldeinsamkeit (1897)
The Things Our Fathers Loved (1917)
Memories: (A) Very Pleasant; (B) Rather Sad (1897)
The Housatonic at Stockbridge (1921)
Swimmers (1921)
The Cage (1906)
The Greatest Man (1921)
General William Booth Enters into Heaven (1914)
Remembrance (1921)
Berceuse (1903)
West London (1921)
Tom Sails Away (1917)
When the Stars are in the Quiet Skies (1891)
Weil’ auf mir (1902)
Ich grolle nicht (1898)
Du alte Mutter (1900)
Where the Eagle (1900)
Walking (1902)
Yellow Leaves (1923)
The Side Show (1921)
Élégie (1901)
The New River (1921)
Like a Sick Eagle (1920)
Ann Street (1921)
Slugging a Vampire (1902)
Thoreau (1915)
Serenity (1919)
Tolerance (c.1906)
Charlie Rutlage (after 1920)
‘1, 2, 3’ (1921)
A Song – For Anything (1892)
Gerald Finley (baritone)
Julius Drake (piano)
rec. 10-12 November 2004, All Saints Church, East Finchley, London. DDD
HYPERION CDA67516 [70:30]
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Charles Ives’ song legacy presents a unique challenge to its interpreters. His songs derive from an enormously wide variety of musical traditions, from the German lied tradition - and European art song in general - to American parlor songs, hymns and folk tunes. In addition, Ives’ own relentless experimentation, which often bore little resemblance to anything that preceded him, led to a body of works that still presents formidable challenges to any performer, regardless of their background. In short, how many singers are capable of singing like Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau one moment and an authentic Texas cowboy the next?

Aside from stylistic variety, the songs also call for an enormous range of emotional responses: from mystical speculations about God and Nature to a small child’s meandering talk about his father, from abstruse philosophical contemplations to sentimental recollections of days gone by, from the profoundly serious to the rowdiest high jinks. All of these present yet further challenges to any artist who chooses to perform them.

Gerald Finley possesses a manly yet vulnerable baritone voice that’s quite remarkable. Pianist Julius Drake is a much-lauded accompanist. They have recorded an impressive recital.

Some of the most effective songs are the foreign language pieces. For the most part, these are more traditional than Ives’ other works; most were composed during his early years. Even so, these songs are so wonderfully performed that I found myself acquiring a new appreciation for their vitality. The first song in the recital, "Feldeinsamkeit", sets the tone for much of the set. It is deliciously inward and hefty, very much in the German lied tradition. There is a prevailing sense of loss and melancholy, and the same could be said of all of the German language pieces. They may not be Ives’ most original works, but I have never heard them performed so convincingly. The same could also be said of "Élégie", a French language work. It’s shockingly beautiful - a great performance. This is a work to pull out when anyone claims that Ives was incapable of writing beautiful, traditional music. This is intoxicating, and I can’t imagine anyone doing it better.

The more traditional English language songs are also perfectly realized. In songs like "Berceuse" and "Remembrance" Finley’s velvety baritone and Drake’s limpid pianism lead to very memorable performances. The duo interprets many songs using a more meditative approach than I have heard before, and the results are usually compelling. For instance, you might compare Finley and Drake’s performance of "The Things Our Fathers Loved" with that by Thomas Stewart and Alan Mandel (Columbia Records, M-30229, out of print LP). Stewart is more sentimental, less heavy, whereas Finley’s performance is characterized by a greater sense of loss. It’s more elegiac. Both performances are convincing, even if they are different.

I find the less traditional songs from Ives’ mature period to be more of a mixed bag. Some of them are wholly successful. For example, Finley’s performance of "The Housatonic at Stockbridge" is outstanding, even if doesn’t culminate in the same degree of ecstatic abandon as some others. "Tom Sails Away" is also excellent. Finley does a superb job of portraying the protagonist’s recollected memories, almost as if he is whispering them to himself. Their performance of "West London" is also very fine. I should make special mention of Finley’s singing in this difficult song; the lead-in is breath-taking.

There several problems with the less successful songs. In their case Julius Drake’s piano suffers rhythmic and dynamic weakness. For example, in "General Booth Enters into Heaven," the pianist’s playing has a measured quality where there should be ecstatic abandon. Finley’s singing is excellent - despite a bit of over-enunciating - but the work is undermined by Drake’s restraint. Also, sometimes the works just don’t sound "American" enough. This might be a matter of accents (as in "Charlie Rutlage," where Finley’s southern accent isn’t convincing) or a matter of holding back where other interpreters belt it out.

I don’t want to imply that any of these songs are poorly done. Finley has an incredible voice, and the overall impact of the disc is impressive. Even more importantly, this disc offers some of the most convincing renditions of Ives’ earlier, more traditional songs that I’ve ever heard. I enthusiastically recommend it to all who are interested in Charles Ives or art song in general.

Scott Mortensen

Scott Mortensen’s Charles Ives web site



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