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Charles IVES (1874-1954)
Romanzo di Central Park
On the Counter (1920) [1:28]
The Circus Band (1894) [2:13]
Two Little Flowers (and dedicated to them) (1921) [1:21]
Ilmenau (1901/2) [2:12]
A Night Song (1895) [1:19]
Down East (1919) [3:07]
Premonitions (1921) [1:50]
The See’r (1920) [1:01]
Songs my mother taught me (1895) [2:25]
In the Alley (1896) [1:58]
Mists (1910) [1:38]
They are There! (1917, rev. 1942)* [2:53]
In Flanders Fields (1917, rev. 1919) [2:58]
The South Wind (1899, rev. 1908) [2:41]
My Native Land (1895) [1:41]
Watchman! (1913) [1:43]
The Children’s Hour (1901) [2:28]
Evidence   (c1898, rev. 1910) [1:19]
The World’s Wanderers (1895) [1:43]
Slow March (1887/8) [1:50]
Omens and Oracles (c1900) [2:52]
Those Evening Bells (1903, rev. 1907) [1:53]
Allegro (1900) [1:20]
Evening (1921) [1:59]
The Last Reader (1921) [1:39]
To Edith (1919) [1:27]
At the River (1916) [2:29]
A Christmas Carol (1894) [2:07]
The Light that is Felt (1904) [2:11]
Romanzo (di Central Park) (1900)* [2:58]
Gerald Finley (baritone), Julius Drake (piano)
*Magnus Johnston (violin)
rec. 16-20 February 2007, venue not given. Song texts provided
HYPERION CDA67644 [62:28]
Experience Classicsonline

Charles Edward Ives was something of a musical magpie, bringing back to his nest scraps of hymn tunes, patriotic songs, sentimental ballads and parade marches. The result is usually startling but always fascinating, not least in his symphonies. The Fourth in particular is a ‘true original’, a polyrhythmic riot of colliding tunes and influences. Of course this Puckish streak, tempered with a degree of seriousness, is present in the songs as well. Some are deceptively simple, almost fragments, others more ambitious in their structure and wide-ranging in their sources. All display that unique cast of mind we call Ivesian.
The Canadian baritone Gerald Finley’s first disc of Ives songs (Hyperion CDA67516) has been very well received and with the able and sympathetic support of accompanist Julius Drake his two collections are bound to become benchmarks in this repertoire. As for the recording – on this disc at least – the music has a natural bloom and glow that brings out both the felicities of Ives’s writing and the many subtleties of Finley’s many-hued voice.
Of the early songs The Circus Band is Ives at his catchy, quick-stepping best, Finley alive to its mood of boyhood excitement. Already Ives is being more daring in his harmonies and stretching the singer’s expressive range – at times it almost becomes a shout. By contrast A Night Song, one of Ives’s ‘sentimental ballads’, finds the composer in mellifluous Schubertian mode, Finley sounding wonderfully rich and velvety in the quiet lower passages.
In the Alley is a charming ‘street song’, the instrumental prelude capturing the slight clanginess of a much-used parlour piano. Finley’s diction and phrasing are a joy to hear, his changes of mood finely calibrated without ever seeming calculated. As if that weren’t enough he is able to sing with aching inwardness in The South Wind, originally a Heine setting reset to words by Ives’s soon-to-be wife, Harmony Twichell. This collection has several of her settings which, as poetry, aren’t particularly distinguished. That said, it’s the composer’s musical response that brings these texts to life.
Ives the compulsive eclectic didn’t turn his back on Heine, setting a translation of his poem My Native Land. Despite its title it’s not so much a patriotic song as a dreamy reflection of nature as a comfort and refuge. Here Heine’s European landscape is suffused with a completely different light, the piano part a perfect synthesis of simplicity and sentiment. Ditto in Evidence, which although dated 1910 was originally an 1898 setting of a poem by Klaus Groth; Ives simply substituted his own text, a  hymn to his native landscape.
Speaking of hymns, The Christmas Carol has the simple devotional style that permeates so many of his works. But there is a subversive clash at 1:36, quite at odds with this gentle lullaby. The same goes for his setting of Shelley’s The World’s Wanderers; here the outwardly simple piano writing hints at more unconventional harmonies, with a recurring dissonance.
Thus far Ives’s piano writing isn’t mould-breaking but change is in the air. What doesn’t change is the composer’s remarkable economy of style, no melody wasted, no harmonies outstaying their welcome. Julius Drake’s playing is similarly concentrated, ranging from quiet reflection and nostalgia to the more febrile outbursts of Omens and Oracles. There Ives makes extra demands on the singer as well, but Finley has the vocal dexterity to match. Whether inward or ardent, his range and consistency of tone are just inspirational. Full marks to the Hyperion team for capturing it all so faithfully.
Of course nostalgia is an integral part of Ives’s musical persona, as we hear in On the Counter. Set to his own text this song speaks of ’The same old chords, the same old time, the same old sentimental sound’. There is a similar rosy glow to Songs My Mother Taught Me, which Finley infuses with just the right amount of feeling. As always he judges the mood of these songs very well; in fact, I can’t think of one item on this disc where he puts a foot wrong
Drake is also a model of intelligence and sensitivity throughout, producing some of the most beguiling piano sounds I’ve heard in ages. In pieces such as Those Evening Bells, To Edith, At the River, Mists and The Light that is Felt the piano parts may be pared down, yet they remain highly evocative. It really is a case of less is more, with the pianist alive to every nuance of this music. Vocally these five songs call for more sustained, quiet singing, which Finley carries off with his usual aplomb. The close of Mists is particularly magical, fading to silence.
They are There! dates from 1917 and also exists in a version for orchestra and chorus; the latter is a real blockbuster, full of fire and unbridled energy. Drake and Finley capture much of that here, with Magnus Johnston adding extra colour on the violin. That final wisp of violin melody sounds remarkably like an echo or distant bugle, a lovely touch. This is Ives in marching band mode, and his wartime pieces call on this part of his musical heritage. The restless, edgy prelude to In Flanders Fields and the repeated, more extreme dissonances show Ives in a much more experimental mode. Indeed, the song’s communicative strength is so clearly derived from its darker, more uncompromising harmonies.
Watchman!, Down East, Premonitions and Evening – the latter a setting of Milton, no less – all have that trademark harmonic ambiguity. Although less brooding and intense than In Flanders Fields, the music acts as a perfect foil to the more conventionally lyrical and sustained vocal line. Harmonically, Premonitions is the most complex of this group, with powerful dissonances and more angular vocals. And what of the strange swoops and moans of ‘The old man with a straw in his mouth’ in The See’r? This affectionate thumbnail of small-town quirkiness ends as abruptly as it began.
The best is left until last, the delectable Romanzo (di Central Park). Set to A Love Song by Leigh Hunt – a series of quatrains, each line just one word long – it encapsulates everything that is so admirable about this disc. Musically and vocally it belongs to the world of Ives’s early songs, and with Johnston’s silvery violin adding to the accompaniment it burns with a steady, warming light..
All credit to Hyperion for producing such a glorious disc. It would be hard to imagine a more sympathetic pairing in this repertoire than Finley and Drake; such commitment and unfailing musicality are rare indeed. No surprise, then, that this is a disc to treasure.
Dan Morgan


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