Ives grew up with
military music – his father led the Danbury Cornet Band – so
it’s hardly surprising that bands figure so prominently in his
œuvre. What distinguishes him from his compatriot John
Philip Sousa, who wrote almost exclusively in this genre, is
his Puck-like nature, delighting in musical mischief and general
high jinks. One soon learns to expect the unexpected in Ives’s
music, whether it’s a reworked hymn tune, popular ballad or
mix of the two; and that’s before one considers the polytonal
and polyrhythmic elements of his more ambitious works.
Given that Ives
is a musical maverick one might wonder how much of his idiosyncratic
style survives the process of transcription and arrangement.
Variations on ‘America’ is a case in point; it is played
here in a transcription by William E. Rhoads, itself based on
William Schuman’s orchestration of E. Power Biggs’s edition
of Ives’s variations for organ, S.140. And while ‘The President’s
Own’ U.S. Marine Band is clearly a well-drilled ensemble one
might also speculate whether the meticulous spit-and-polish
approach is well suited to this repertoire.
Ives’s teenage composition
Variations on ‘America’ is a ‘signature’
tune if ever there was one. It is also something of a calling
card for Colonel Foley and his band, whose playing is polished
but perhaps too unyielding. And compared with the flamboyant Erich
Kunzel and the Cincinnati Pops (see
review) the Naxos sound is certainly analytical but rather
dry. Only at the 10th track, the expansive Fugue
in C, does one get anything of the visceral, big band sound
that this music surely demands.
Indeed, one longs
for the impact of a Telarc-style bass drum in Ives’s Overture
and March ‘1776’, the only completed part of a projected
opera based on his uncle Lyman Brewster’s verse play Major
John Andre. The quiet opening hardly prepares one for the
rhythmic complexities that follow – another Ivesian signature
– but the piece would certainly benefit from a more unbuttoned
performance than it gets here.
They are there!
also exists in a cracking orchestral and choral version
superbly realised by David Zinman and his Baltimore forces (Decca
476 1537). The band plays it with commendable élan, but one
really does misses the massed voices that give weight and thrust
to this piece. That said this transcription by James B. Sinclair
gets a spirited performance nonetheless.
The Old Home
Days Suite for Band is one of those eclectic Ivesian works
that draws on several musical traditions. The Waltz,
which quotes a popular tune of the day, has a gentle charm,
while The Opera House and Old Home Day finds Ives in
a more boisterous mood. The President’s Own are perhaps less
comfortable with this display of high spirits than with the
quiet dignity of The Collection, a setting of George
Kingsley’s hymn tune Tappan. It has a remarkable organ-like
sonority, marvellously captured by the well-blended brass. But
Puck is lurking in the wings and makes a fleeting appearance
in the riotous London Bridge is Fallen
Down! It’s so short it’s a case of blink and you’ll miss
it, but what one really misses here is a greater sense of spontaneity
in the music making.
The Fugue in
C is altogether more ambitious. Based on Lowell Mason’s
Missionary Hymn (‘From Greenland’s icy mountains’) it
is a four-part fugue whose introduction bears an uncanny resemblance
to the plainchant-like opening of Gustav Holst’s Hymn of
Jesus (1917). Colonel Foley and his bandsmen build the music
to an undeniably powerful climax, though again one might wish
for a warmer, more expansive recording to capture the sheer
impact of a big band playing en masse.
Ives clearly loved
student japery, and nowhere is that clearer than in his March:
Omega Lambda Chi, based on Sousa’s The Liberty Bell.
It’s a piece of sophomoric silliness and thankfully the bandsmen
loosen up a little, giving the music some much-needed swagger
in the process.
Just when one begins
to think the parade will never end we have something a bit different
with Keith Brion’s arrangement of Variations on ‘Jerusalem
the Golden’. It has a sextet of older, small-bore brass
instruments alternating with a full modern concert band in a
dialogue that makes for a welcome change of mood and tempo after
all those (slightly manic) quicksteps. That said it’s a rather
dry piece that only really catches fire in the magisterial climaxes.
The bucolic Country
Band march quotes Sousa and parodies the efforts of enthusiastic
but inept marching bands, with late entries and key clashes.
It’s a witty piece that really needs to be a little less disciplined
than it is here. Not surprisingly the more serious (and serious
minded) Decoration Day, transcribed from the second movement
of Ives’s New England Holidays symphony, plays to the
band’s strengths. It seems much more orchestral in the breadth
of its opening and at more than eight minutes it is one of the
more substantial pieces on the disc. It certainly captures the
mood and scale of the orchestral original, even if it lacks
some of its instrumental subtleties and nuances. If one wants
to hear the entire symphony superbly played Zinman disc mentioned
above is an excellent choice.
In his highly detailed
and informative booklet notes Jonathan Elkus makes the point
that while Sousa wrote his music for America, Ives wrote
his music about America. There is little that Ives the
magpie didn’t bring back to his nest and that includes ragtime
in his setting of the endearing bunkhouse ballad Charlie
Rutlage. The horsy theme continues with Runaway Horse
on Main Street, this time with the added twist of unexpected
patterns of rhythm and pitch. This is a glimpse of late Ives
that we also hear in ‘The Alcotts’, from his 1940-47
revision of the Concord Sonata (1920). It has the harmonic
and rhythmic strangeness one recognises in his later works and
the band acquits itself rather well, especially in the more
serene hymn-like passages. In some ways it’s a case of leaving
the best ‘til last, with the massed brass and percussion thrilling
in the big climaxes.
As so often with
Ives he ends ‘The Alcotts’ on an ambiguous note, which
is probably a good metaphor for this disc as a whole. There
is no doubt this band passes muster – the playing is very polished
– but somehow it’s all too sedate and controlled. Perhaps one
needs a more unruly beast between the shafts and a driver willing
to loosen the reins a little more. What a wild ride that would