Charles IVES (1874-1954) Songs, Vol. 2
track and artist details listed at end of review
rec. May-June 2005, Sprague Hall, Yale University, New Haven,
USA NAXOS 8.559270 [67.37]
As I write this review, I realize that Naxos has
moved on very quickly and there are now five volumes of Ives’ complete
songs available in the shops. Nevertheless the pattern for
these discs seems to have been repeated for the latest
so I can throw some light on what they are all about and what
you can expect.
first thing to say is that the whole concept is brilliant, that is, to vary the
voices, young ones as well as experienced opera singers - all biographies are
meticulously given in the booklets - and to vary the accompanists. These latter
can sometimes be overlooked but here each has done a sterling job. On some
occasions the piano part is massively more difficult than the vocal one. Also
inspired was the decision to put the items together in alphabetical order. This
places the songs in a random chronological manner so that as you listen you
have the prospect of a new and pleasing surprise around every corner.
It’s true to say that not all of the performers
are equally up to the tasks which Ives sets his poor singers.
The right singer has not always been chosen for a particular
song. Also some of the songs are rather ‘naff’. I would go so
far as to say that ‘The All-Enduring’, on Volume 1 is almost
the worst piece of music I have ever encountered. It is not
helped by an overly earnest performance. I love Ives but when
he is in this sort of pompous mood I just have to walk away.
Things are not helped in this long song - as sometimes elsewhere
- by not being able to hear the words. So before you start I
strongly advise you to go on the Naxos website and download
them. Incidentally, best of luck with this because from my experience
the procedure is awkward and inconsistent.
may still be possible to obtain copies of a disc of Ives’ songs which Henry
Herford and Robin Bowman recorded for the now long defunct Unicorn-Kanchana
label back in the early 1990s. Their performances of ‘Autumn’ and ‘Afterglow’
for example completely outstrip the dull efforts of the performers here.
Nevertheless let’s take what we are given here and pick out a few highlights
and, for me, discoveries.
Ives published his 114 songs - many very short
indeed - in 1922. There are in fact about sixty others which
form part of this complete collection. We may be coming to terms
with his modernistic and later songs but this complete collection
helps us to get to know the ‘Victoriana’ as well. The chromaticisms
are such as to remind me of César Franck in for instance ‘Far
from my heavenly home’. By 1922 he was approaching the end of
his composing career although he had many years yet to live.
I am a firm believer that the music written from about 1914
onwards is pure nostalgia. These songs - or indeed several of
the orchestral works - often begin with a strange polytonal
chord and then proceed in a similar manner supporting a tonal
melody. One example is ‘August’ where the mood is captured superbly
by David Pittsinger on Naxos. Incidentally, his diction is always
immaculate and I was delighted to discover that it is he who
tackles, excellently, the famous but challenging ‘General William
Booth enters into Heaven’ on Volume 2.
personal highlights, both musically and in the quality of the performance would
be ‘The Ending Year’ (Sara Jukubiak), ‘Grace’ (Tamara Mumford), ‘Charlie
Routlage’ (Patrick Carfizzi), ‘Aeschylus and Sophocles’(Mary Philips) and the
incredibly powerful ‘December’ (Janna Baty).
Looking through Ives’ choice of poetry is interesting
as there is such a huge range which must represent his personal
reading and interests. The anonymous ones may, in some cases
be his own poetry although, as can be seen above he did normally
credit himself. Perhaps ‘Far in the Wood’ may be such a poem.
He also set texts in German where Wolf is almost looking over
his shoulder. There are also French settings however the chanson
‘Elegie’ is a long way from Fauré.
There is a wide variety of fun and thought available in this
little known and in some cases utterly unknown repertoire. These
recordings may encourage more singers both amateur and professional,
and not just American ones, to take up the Ives cause. A little
group of Ives in a recital programme or on an examination syllabus
would be refreshing and of enormous interest to listeners and
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