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Penguin Guide, January 2009

The opening song-group, very well sung, begins lyrically with The Housatonic at Stockbridge, but at its climax the piano accompaniment goes wild; the following Soliloquy explodes similarly, and the dissonant, untamed accompaniment continues its conflict to underline On the Antipodes. Sunrise (Ives’s final song) initially brings relative peace and an Elysian violin solo but still has an agitated climax. In the brief Remembrance (of the composer’s father), the cello enters too, to create a simple eulogy in which the violin persists. In Aeschylus and Sophocles the wildness erupts into frenzy at the words ‘Accursed be the race’, but the anger subsides for the final ‘Farewell’, and the last word is with the cello.

The first of the instrumental pieces, The Gong on the Hook and Ladder, pictures the annual parade of the neighbourhood Fire Company, for the appliance was heavy and had to be held in check manually down the hill, while the violent clanging gong on the hand wheel ‘must ring steady’. Hallowe’en is a busy, dissonant Scherzo (the strings playing in different keys), suggesting the growing flames of the bonfire, with children running round it. In Re Con Moto et al. brings the most ferocious dissonance of all ‘to stretch ear muscles’, as Ives suggested. The piano pieces, Five Take-offs (implying improvisatory freedom, but in fact highly organized), were published as recently as 1991, and would make a stimulating centrepiece for any modern piano recital. The untamed, feral Jumping Frog has an underlying boldly controlled cantus firmus. Then, astonishingly, Song without (Good) Words is quite beautiful—very romantic, but with wrong notes—and Scene Episode begins in much the same mood of emotional serenity, which is not quite sustained. Bad Resolutions and Good WAN! Opens with a hymn but once more, characteristically, the peace is boldly interrupted.

The Three Quarter-Tone Pieces are aurally the most fascinating of all, more remarkably so as they are very listenable. Originally written in 1924 for a double keyboard microtonal piano, they are now usually played as a simultaneous piano duo, using two pianos, tuned a microtone apart. They really do ‘tweak the ear muscles’, the first bell-like, the second in wild ragtime, and the third boldly fantasizing on America ’tis of thee or God save the Queen (according to your nationality). All in all, this makes a fine, characteristic anthology, splendidly realized by artists not named individually, except for the pair of director/pianists. In many of the pieces Ives’s habit of including a phrase or two of deliberate banality amid the wildness adds piquancy, well caught in these performances from the New York-based group, Continuum. The instrumental piece Hallowe’en has a bass drum entry that takes you terrifyingly by surprise, helped by the vivid recording. The Take-offs (an expression Ives used as meaning improvisation) are simpler but just as original. The two excellent pianists are Joel Sachs and Cheryl Seltzer, and the sopranos, both projecting well, are Victoria Villamil and Sheila Schonbrun. This collection shows the composer as slightly off the beam at times, but endearingly so. The recording is excellent and the (essential) documentation praiseworthy, including the words of the songs.

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