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Steve Hicken, December 2010

IVES Songs Volume 1: “123” through “Cradle Song” Naxos 8.559269
IVES Songs Volume 2: “December” through “Gruss” Naxos 8.559270
IVES Songs Volume 3: “Harpalus” through “Luck and Work” Naxos 8.559271
IVES Songs Volume 4: “Majority” through “Over the Treetops” Naxos 8.559272
IVES Songs Volume 5: “Paracelsus” through “Swimmers” Naxos 8.559273
IVES Songs Volume 6: “Tarrant Moss” through “Yellow Leaves”. Naxos 8.559274

Charles Ives completed nearly 200 songs between 1887 and 1926, spanning the entirety of his composing life. All of his aesthetic, musical, poetic, philosophical, and political concerns are addressed, one way or another, in one style or another. All of the completed songs are included in Naxos’ six volumes, which are organized according to song titles, in alphabetical order. This arrangement seems extremely counter-intuitive, but it turns out to be really inspired, as it allows a listener to get a picture of the range of Ives’ work in the form, without having to purchase the entire set.

Like every collection of this size and this variety, every listener will have favorites and every listener will find revelations. Many of the songs are well-known, such as “General William Booth Enters Into Heaven” (Volume 2, David Pittsinger, bass, and Douglas Dickson, piano), “Majority” (Volume 4, Robert Gardner, baritone, and Eric Trudel, piano), “The Cage” (Volume 1, Gardner and J. J. Penna, piano) and “The Greatest Man” (Michael Cavalieri, baritone, and Dickson).

An example of a revelation is “Ich Grolle Nicht” (Volume 3, Gardner and Penna). This is an early (1898) song on a text by Heinrich Heine. This song and others from the same time frame show a fully mature composer with a solid grasp on the late Romantic style of the day. The touching lyricism that characterizes this song emerges throughout Ives’ career, as in the deconstruction of the hymn “At the River” (Volume 1, Sara Jakubiak, soprano, and Dickson).

Ives’ stentorian mode comes into play in such political/patriotic songs as “Lincoln, the Great Commoner” (Volume 3, Gardner and Trudel) and “Walt Whitman” (Volume 6, Ryan MacPherson, tenor, and Trudel), which are also portraits of their subjects in the manner of the composer’s “Concord” Sonata. Patriotic fervor also brings out Ives at his most gloriously impractical, as in the 42-second song for voice and three pianos “Vote for Names! Names! Names!” (Volume 6, MacPherson and pianists Laura Garritson, Dickson, and Trudel).

Every disc is replete with the special pleasures of Ives’ art. Hymn-tunes, patriotic songs, and chaos abound. Anyone wishing to stick a toe in this repertoire would do well to get any one of the volumes.

The performances throughout the collection, featuring about two dozen singers, a number of pianists and assorted instrumentalists, are ardent, committed, and expressive, if not quite as polished as those of Susan Narucki and Donald Berman. Naxos’ production is solid, and Richard Whitehouse’s notes are well-written and richly informative.

Paul Turok
Turok’s Choice, March 2009

Charles Ives’s complete songs, arranged alphabetically by title from No.1 (“1,2,3”) to No.193 (“Yellow Leaves”) are performed by 18 fine singers, excellent pianists, and other instrumentalists as required (8.559269–8.559274, six discs). Ives, perhaps America’s greatest musical visionary, did not have the compositional technique to fulfill his quixotic ideas. Because his songs are short, formal problems don’t arise that plague his larger pieces; textual consistency also tends to unify his materials, so that his songs don’t sound as arbitrary as some of the larger pieces do. He set great Europeans like Milton and Heine rather awkwardly. Greater inspiration seems to have come from the American writers of his time, like Whitman or Whittier, whose works were set eccentrically, but with a particular American flavor. Many of his songs were arranged from instrumental pieces: Thoreau (Vol.6) is from the Second Piano Sonata, the haunting finale of “Three Places in New England” shows up as The Housatonic at Stockbridge (Vol.3). Several come from his violin sonatas: Watchman (Vol.6), At the River (Vol.1), His Exaltation (Vol.3) and The Camp-Meeting (Vol.1) is from a movement of his Third Symphony. TC favorites are The Circus Band (Vol.1), The New River (Vol.4) and Charlie Rutlage (Vol.1) among others. This is a project of the greatest importance, musically and as documentation, that is not likely to be available otherwise. Collectors will want to sample several of these discs; libraries will want them all.

Gary Higginson
MusicWeb International, March 2009

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 ones so I can throw some light on what they are all about and what you can expect. The 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.

…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.

Other 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 performers.

John Sheppard
MusicWeb International, December 2008

It is taking a long time for singers and the public to appreciate the full extent and importance of Ives’ output of songs. Not as large as Schubert maybe, but still a major achievement. The title alone of the main published source—“114 Songs” (1922)—gives an idea of its scope but there are in fact nearly 200 songs in all. Surprisingly, however, this appears to be the first attempt to record the completed songs in their entirety and, whatever shortcomings there may be in its realisation, this series must be an issue of major importance for anyone with an interest in Ives or indeed in song or in American music in general. 

Previous recordings of the songs have usually involved a single singer. A small number of songs have found their way onto many of these discs. Of those on the present discs, “General William Booth enters into Heaven”, “The Greatest Man”, “The Circus Band” and “Ann Street” are amongst this group. What is remarkable is the number of what are to me at least wholly unfamiliar. It may at first seem arbitrary for Naxos to have put the songs into alphabetical order, and indeed it does lead to some strange companions, but the alternatives of arranging them by author, theme or date would run a much greater risk of monotony. On the whole I have no doubt that Naxos have chosen the better option. It means that we hear early songs strongly rooted in American domestic and social music of the late nineteenth century alongside songs completed towards the end of his active composing life; the latter are of a drastically different character. This may be disconcerting at times but constantly draws attention to the Ives’ range as a composer. 

Although all were recorded at Yale University, Naxos have divided the songs between a large group of singers and pianists, mainly young Americans. They have even made use of an organ and a string quartet in three instances. Overall the listener can have no doubt of the seriousness with which the project has been undertaken. Each disc has a brief but helpful introduction to each song as well as much longer biographies and photographs of the performers. 

All of this is immensely praiseworthy… for the many novelties which they include, and for the way in which they demonstrate the range and quality of Ives’ songs.

Peter Dickinson
Gramophone, October 2008

Tackling the huge  Ives songbook alphabetically gives us welcome variety…There’s an impressive cast of singers—18 on the first CD [Vol 1, 8.559269]—ranging from graduate students to experienced opera singers. There’s even a fine countertenor, Ian Howell—the timbre works whatever Ives might have thought of such an effeminate voice! There are too many discoveries to mention. …Anyone seriously interested in Ives warts-and-all will want to be on board for this series.

Leonard Link, August 2008

Naxos's Ives Song Series Revisited

I've been an Ives song enthusiast since childhood, having collected just about every commercial recording that's been available from the early 1970s onward…Well, an Ives song fanatic such as I could not resist continuing to collect the series, just on the chance that things might improve, and having now heard the second and third releases, I have to say that both of them impressed me more than first [8.559269]. …So I think it may just be that the particular mix of singers and songs produced by an alphabetical sequence resulted in more interesting results in the second, and especially the third, disc. …In general, the men have been doing better than the women as this series has unfolded, and by the quirk of alphabetical order, the third release is heavy with male singers and light on female singers.  All the pianists seem to be up to the challenges, as far as I can tell.  So, for those who love Ives's songs, I guess this series becomes a "mandatory" acquisition, despite the occasional disappointing performance or odd sequence.  …the Naxos series will have some additional songs that were not available back then, as the Ives Archives at Yale have continued to yield up their treasures from the unpublished manuscripts.

David Denton
David's Review Corner, July 2008

It would surely have delighted the unconventional Charles Ives to find that Naxos is presenting his songs in nothing more high-brow than alphabetical order.Throughout his musical life he rejected orthodoxy, an attitude he had inherited from his father, a local bandmaster, who together with his young son had embarked on some zany musical experiments. Yet initially the young man had shown an aptitude to become a conventional composer, following his studies at Yale University with Horatio Parker. But it was the more practical aspects of earning a living that took him into the insurance business, where he was to prove extremely successful, and as a weekend composer he could return to his liberated musical world where performance and publication were no longer his objective. It was this freedom that proved the recipe for his eventual success, his experiments taking him into atonality, while at the same time he could write in the most conventional mode that returned to his youth and time spent playing church music. Only in his later years was his music taken seriously on the international stage and he began to see his works in print. Throughout his life he wrote songs, some little more than snippets lasting a few seconds, others extended and taking their inspiration from German lieder. He left almost two hundred, this projected series containing all those completed at the time of his death. By the second volume we have reached Gruss, so I guess there will be eight volumes when complete. It was courageous of Naxos to use opera singers, though this has its dangers. If only the singers had sat down and listened to Marni Nixon’s long deleted LP, some deficiencies may have been avoided. Sara Jakubiak may then have shaped At the River with more affection; Leah Wool would have heard the ‘tongue in cheek’ charm that can be brought to Ann Street, and David Pittsinger could have noted the mood swings possible in General William Booth Enters into Heaven. The singers find the sentimental ballads much easier to achieve, Pittsinger’s bass heard to good effect in Because of You, and the tenor, Kenneth Tarver, bringing the right mood to Dreams. I also much enjoyed the baritone, Michael Cavalieri, in Die alte Mutter. But finding the style for such songs as Charlie Rutlage, The Circus Band and The Greatest Man is a very different matter.Of course it is all too easy to stand by and comment on such a complex project, and at very least we should be grateful that a complete recording is being undertaken. The piano accompaniments from Eric Trudel and Douglas Dickson are models of cleanliness and good taste, if a little short on the bad taste that Ives sometimes requires. The sound quality is admirable.

David Venier, July 2008

Mezzo-soprano Janna Baty offers a suitably rousing introduction to Naxos' Ives Songs, Volume 2 in the form of "December", Ives' 1913 setting of a 14th-century text that speaks of "whole dead pigs", "cunning cooks", "wine-butts", "vagabonds", and "miserable reprobate Misers", instructing singers to perform it "roughly and in a half-spoken way." Baty follows Ives' directions to their intended dramatic effect, and thus we begin our alphabetically ordered, 26-song journey from "Disclosure" (1921) to "Gruss" (1898).

Returning from Volume 1, tenor Matthew Plenk takes on three songs in this program (the track listing says four, however the singer of "Evidence" sounds suspiciously like countertenor Ian Howell from Vol. 1), all of them--"Disclosure", "Eyes so Dark", and "Friendship"--affectingly sung. Likewise bass David Pittsinger, terrific in Volume 1, keeps our full attention, not only for the tour de force "General William Booth Enters into Heaven" (1914), but also, through the sheer rich-toned beauty of his voice and unforced expression, for two notably less worthy entries, "Flag Song" (1900) and "God Bless and Keep Thee" (1898).

Another highlight is baritone Robert Gardner's only appearance, a lovely, heartfelt rendition of the nostalgic "Down East" (1919), where he perfectly captures the mood of the song's two parts, the dreamlike, chromatic opening and the following, gradual transition to the hymn Bethany ("Nearer My God to Thee"). Also worth singling out are soprano Sara Jakubiak's (another returning singer from Vol. 1) moving rendition of "The Ending Year" (1902) and baritone Michael Cavalieri's similarly engaging "Grantchester" (1920) and wonderfully lively, characterful "The Greatest Man" (1921).

That said, unlike on Volume 1 (type Q11808 in Search Reviews), the performances here are uneven, the singing and interpretive authority not as consistently accomplished or convincing. Especially in the German-texted songs, which generally aren't among Ives' better efforts, the singers seem unable to find a happy connection between words and melody--Cavalieri, who's so good in the above-mentioned songs, is the biggest offender here (in "Du alte Mutter" from 1902). In "La Fede" (1920), mezzo Leah Wool's vibrato just overwhelms the text and very short (54 seconds) melody. In the final song, "Gruss", soprano Sumi Kittelberger lacks that extra measure of control and involvement that would make the song's melody and sentiment linger warmly rather than awkwardly.

Again, this is overall an impressive group of singers (14 this time) and accompanists (especially Eric Trudel and Douglas Dickson), and as before the random mix of songs from all periods of Ives' career makes for an enjoyable, entertaining 68 minutes of continuous listening, well captured in the complementary acoustic of Yale University's Sprague Hall. My only true disappointment here (and on the earlier volume) is that full texts are not provided--even at Naxos' website only some of the song texts are available.

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