The songs of the American composer Charles Ives (1874 -- 1954) have been well-served on CD, but they have never before been recorded in their entirety on a budget-priced label or arranged, for recording purposes, in alphabetical order. The American Classics series of the budget Naxos label is in the midst of doing both. This CD is the third of a complete recording of the Ives songs arranged, quixotically, in alphabetical order.
The performers are a group of young musicians affiliated with the Yale University School of Music. They offer readings of Ives as varied, idiosyncratic, and unpredictable as the songs themselves.
In 1922, Ives gathered 114 of his songs, arranged them in reverse chronological order, added comments, and self-published them in a book called simply "114 songs". All told, Ives composed about 200 songs. The songs dating from his early years frequently draw heavily upon German lieder, parlor music, or hymns. The songs of Ives's maturity are deeply complex, varied, and musically adventurous. Throughout his life, Ives freely shifted musical material between his songs and his other compositions. From the beginning to the end of his career as a composer, Ives drew heavily on other music, incorporating many quotations from both classical and popular sources.
The characteristics of Ives's songs are on large display in this volume 3 which consists of 33 songs from the composer's earliest to his latest efforts. As with any large song collection, Ives's songs tend to be erratic with masterworks interspersed with less inspiring material. The collage of performers includes 13 singers, three pianists, an organist, and a piccolo.
I prefer the songs of the later Ives. This collection includes two songs with a distinctly patriotic flavor. In 1917, Ives set his own words to a song called "He is There!" with a rousing march theme to encourage America's effort during WW I. Baritone Michael Cavalieri has a particularly good time with this song, with the rousing piano and piccolo obligato. (Later, Ives would revise this song and record it himself under the title "They are There!) Ives's 1917 setting of a poem "In Flanders Fields" also included here offers a more sobering, restrained view of the carnage of the Great War.
Ives's second patriotic song on this CD is his 1919 setting of Edward Markham's poem, ""Lincoln the Great Commoner." Ives had initially composed this work in 1912 for chorus and orchestra before deciding on a setting for solo voice and piano. Ives also wrote a spoken prologue to Markham's text. The song presents an accessible vision of Lincoln as hero, with large vocal declamations accompanied by big chords and sharply dissonant harmonies in the piano.
Many of the late songs on this disk show Ives's transcendental side and his concern with spiritual experience. These songs include his own text to a song titled "Immortality" (1921) performed here by mezzo-soprano Tamara Mumford. In 1921, Ives also prepared modernistic settings for Oliver Wendell Holmes' Sr. poem, "The Lost Reader" for Byron's poem, "The Incantation" and for a "Hymn" by one Gerhardt Tersteegen, all of which are visionary and complex in character and which receive excellent performances on this disk.
Probably the most famous song on this CD is Ives's 1908 setting of Robert Underwood Johnson's poem "The Housatonic at Stockbridge." This work had great meaning for Ives, as he and his bride Harmony spent their honeymoon at Stockbridge. Ives used the wavering, meditative music for this song in his orchestral suite "Three Places in New England" before transforming it for piano and voice.
Many of the earlier songs on this CD are derivative of German lieder, such as the two settings of Heine's "Ich Grolle Nicht", which was set, far more convincingly by Robert Schumann in "Dicterliebe". Ives does better, I think, in the early songs when he simply is himself, setting sentimental love songs, such as "Her Eyes" (1898), "I knew and loved a Maid" (1898) "In April Tide" (1897), or "Karen" (1900). My favorite among these early Ives songs is the novelty "In the Alley" to Ives's own text which tells of a chance encounter between the poet and a flirtatious young lady in a questionable area of town. Ives described this work as a "Street Song". He wrote in "114 songs" that "This song (and the same may be said of others) is inserted for association's sake -- on the grounds that that will excuse anything also, to help clear up a long disputed point, namely -- which is worse? the music or the words?" The song is slight and funny but endearing.
The many performers in the Naxos cycle give the readings an aura of spontaneity which Ives would have loved. I am looking forward to the next volume. The album features good program notes but no texts. (The diction in many of the songs is hard to follow.) The texts are to be posted on the Naxos website, but they were unavailable as of this writing.