HumanitiesWeb.org - The Rich Double Life of Charles Ives [Recommended Recordings]
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Site last updated
26 June, 2013

Charles Ives
Recommended Recordings



"If it feels like kicking over an ash can, a poet's castle, or a prosodic law, will you stop it? ... If it happens to feel like trying to fly where humans cannot fly, to sing what cannot be sung, to walk in a cave on all fours, or to tighten up its girth in blind hope and faith and try to scale mountains that are not, who shall stop it? In short, must a song always be a song! "

Holiday Symphony, etc
(Adolph Herseth; Chicago Symphony Chorus, Chicago Symphony Orchestra; Michael Tilson Thomas, conductor)
Ives never really intended his four holiday symphonic poems to be played together, and they are very seldom performed that way live. But it makes so much sense to group them on a recording that the Holidays Symphony has become the standard way to refer to the music. In any event, all four pieces offer some of Ives'ss finest, most imaginative work. The Fourth of July is the second most complex and crazy piece that he ever wrote--right up there with the second movement of the Fourth Symphony. Tilson Thomas is very much a specialist in this music, and he directs performances of almost supernatural accuracy. Simply the best. (David Hurwitz)

Ives Plays Ives - The Composer at the Piano
In his lifetime, maverick composer Charles Ives entered the recording studio only four times, mostly to hear (and tinker with) his works in progress. He ended up doing 42 takes of 17 different pieces on the piano, all recorded between 1933 and 1943: everything from snippets of the unfinished Emerson Concerto to his rousing wartime anthem "They Are There!" It's a varied lot, to say the least, but now we have his complete recordings on one CD. The sound quality isn't great and you can easily hear how frustrated Ives is by the newfangled technology (recording techniques restricted his playing to five minute chunks). That said, you couldn't ask for a greater insight into the composer. Most of these pieces derive from Ives's unfinished Emerson concerto for piano and orchestra, but the entire package is one big treasure chest. Here we have the composer at work: improvising, (occasionally) frustrated, frenzied, and--most of all--creative. His playing is as off-the-wall as you can imagine: fast, improvised, with failed notes galore, and occasionally spot-on. Highlights abound--just check out "The Alcotts" from the Concord Sonata (No. 2) to hear him at his performance peak--but the most memorable cuts feature Ives himself singing. His three versions of the wartime anthem "We Are There!" should give hope to any struggling vocalist... for a career either selling insurance or composing great music. Yes, his voice is simply awful, but the music and history contained on this disc are breathtaking. (review by Jason Verlinde)

Symphonies no 1 & 4
(Mary Sauer, Richard Webster; Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Chicago Symphony Chorus; Michael Tilson Thomas, conductor)
Ives's First Symphony is an attractive, conservative piece with a gorgeous slow movement based on a hymn tune and a finale that sounds strangely like early Bruckner. The Fourth, on the other hand, is arguably his masterpiece, and one of the most radical compositions in the history of music. Scored for a huge orchestra with three solo pianos, chorus, offstage and onstage instruments, and "everything but the kitchen sink" percussion, it requires at least two conductors to keep it all coordinated. Listening to it--despite the commotion in the second movement--is a positively transcendental experience, and the finale resolves itself into one of the most beautiful moments in American music. These performances are smashing (and crashing, where necessary!). (review by David Hurwitz)

Symphony no 3, etc
(St. Louis Symphony Orchestra; Leonard Slatkin, conductor)
These are the major works of Charles Ives (1874-1954), done in magnificent sound--and superlative performances--by Louis Slatkin and the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra. Three Places in New England--and perhaps this version--belongs in every collection of 20th-century American music. Also a treat here are The Unanswered Question and Central Park in the Dark. These aren't tone poems, quite. (It's hard to say what they are.) But Ives had the knack for providing even his most discordant works a tonal C major core. Usually. This would allow him--as in Symphony 3--to wander occasionally astray. Highly recommended. (review by Paul Cook)

The Sonatas for Violin & Piano
(Gregory Fulkerson, Robert Shannon)
Ives's music ranges from the conservatively tonal to the wildly experimental. The four violin sonatas contain examples of both types, as well as those typically Ivesian collage pieces in which every New England hymn and march tune known to mankind gets thrown together in sort of a musical tossed salad. They also range wildly in length, from the 11 minute Fourth Sonata, subtitled Children's Day at the Camp Meeting (a haunting meditation on Protestant hymn tunes related to the Third Symphony) to the 30-minute-long Third Sonata. Altogether, they represent the most distinguished contribution to this particular genre by an American composer, and they are sensationally performed and recorded here. A classic set. (review by David Hurwitz)

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