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Charles IVES (1874-1954)
In the Alley - Songs and Chamber Music
Julia Sophie Wagner (soprano)
Steffen Schleiermacher (piano)
Ensemble Avantgarde
rec. 2019, Konzerthaus der Abei Marienmünster, Marienmünster, Germany
Texts included in English and German with German and English translations
MDG 613 2178-2 [71:17]

Here we have a good selection of the varied songs and instrumental pieces of Charles Ives, the American iconoclast whose works were only universally recognized after the composer’s death. They cover a large part of his career, which for all intents and purposes ended in 1918 when Ives retired from his insurance business. The majority of these works were published in 1921. It may seem unusual that a German specialist in Baroque music, in particular Bach oratorios, would record Ives. On the basis of this disc, Julia Sophie Wagner proves equal to the task for the most part, even if her diction much of the time is not ideally clear, and the accompaniments—mostly on the piano—are excellent. However, I would not prefer her performances to those of Susan Graham, accompanied by Pierre-Laurent Aimard, on a Warner CD that includes the big Concord Sonata. That CD contains 17 songs, seven which overlap those on this new disc.

The purely instrumental pieces include two versions of a Largo, one with violin and piano and the other adding clarinet to that duo. This is a moody, contemplative work that sounds a bit like Satie before becoming animated. The Song Without (Good) Words, despite its fanciful title, is for solo piano and is also pensive. The Three Improvisations for piano are just that. According to Steffen Schleiermacher, the pianist on this recording and contributor of the booklet notes, Ives recorded some of his own works at the piano and liked to improvise. The final instrumental piece, scored for horn, violin, flute and piano, is one of the composer’s three versions of Remembrance. The horn plays the vocal part in this version, while the second version is for voice and piano and the third for voice, piano, and violin. In all the selections on this CD the piano has a far greater role than the other instruments. Schleiermacher is a fine pianist, playing solos and accompanying equally well as in Feldeinsamkeit’s arpeggiated, pellucid runs.

The main interest, though, lies with the actual songs. Some of these are well known, such as The Housatonic at Stockbridge, Memories, and The Circus Band. Ives himself supplied the lyrics for many of his songs, including Memories and The Circus Band, whereas The Housatonic at Stockbridge uses a poem by Robert Underwood Johnson. Wagner enraptures with a clear, bell-like voice when singing softly as in the beginning of The Housatonic at Stockbridge and in the second part of Memories, titled Rather Sad. On the other hand, whenever the volume rises and the music is dramatic, as in The Circus Band and later in The Housatonic at Stockbridge, her voice turns harsh and her vibrato becomes too intense and overdone. She takes the first part of Memories (Very Pleasant) at such a lick that it is all but incomprehensible. A comparison with Graham demonstrates that at a slightly slower tempo the text is easily understood without losing an ounce of excitement or fun.

Among other highlights is Songs My Mother Taught Me, which has the same text that Dvořák used in his song. Here there is little to choose between Wagner and Graham. Both capture the poignancy of the lyrics, even if Graham’s diction is clearer. Ives, the purveyor of Americana, whether it be patriotic or more redolent of the barroom, is represented by Old Home Day, The Side Show, and Spring Song, all of which are well sung if with too much vibrato at times. Old Home Day, with its reference to patriotic songs, also employs a piccolo to represent the fife. The longest work on the programme is Sunrise, a song with obbligato violin, which was not published by Ives. It was found among his sketches after his death and a performance score was created by Ives expert, John Kirkpatrick. Ives wrote the lyrics about the sun rising and hope for the new day. The song is quite dissonant and mysterious, and Wagner captures its essence even without the clearest of diction. I didn’t care that much for her rendition of the disc’s title song, In the Alley, where her vibrato obtrudes detrimentally. On the other hand, she is much more at home in the two German songs, Feldeinsamkeit (on a text by Hermann Almers) and Ilmenau (on a Goethe text). Both of these owe much to German Romantic lieder with an American accent. Interestingly, Ives did not speak any German.

Where the CD booklet is reliable in placing the English texts first with the German translations next to them and the reverse for the German songs, for Feldeinsamkeit the English is given first as if the song were sung in English translation. Of course, Wagner sings it in the original German as she does Ilmenau which is printed in the correct order. This is the only flaw in an otherwise attractive and informative CD booklet. Overall, there is plenty to enjoy on this programme even if I prefer other singers, especially Susan Graham. The recorded sound, itself, is first-rate with a fine balance between voice and accompaniment.

Leslie Wright

Disc contents
The Housatonic at Stockbridge [4:13]
Largo (two versions) [5:52, 6:05]
The Cage [0:53]
The Side Show [0:45]
Old Home Day [4:55]
Remembrance (three versions) [1:20, 1:27, 1:18]
A Farewell to Land [1:37]
Three Improvisations: I [1:17], II [1:26], III [0:47]
Mists [2:18]
Nature’s Way [2:00]
Spring Song [1:24]
Songs My Mother Taught Me [2:54]
Memories: a) Very Pleasant [0:35], b) Rather Sad [2:11]
In the Alley [2:37]
Sunrise [7:37]
Song Without (Good) Words [4:45]
The Circus Band [2:13]
Like a Sick Eagle [2:24]
Where the Eagle [2:09]
Feldeinsamkeit [3:57]
Ilmenau [2:03]

Ensemble Avantgarde performers: Andreas Seidel (violin); Matthias Kreher (clarinet); Ralf Mielke (flute); Jochen Pless (horn)

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