Top 10 Ives recordings

Gramophone Thu 21st April 2016

Many of Ives's works present unique challenges for the performers brave and dedicated enough to tackle them, let alone commit them to disc. Here are some of the finest Ives recordings in the catalogue...

Psalms

Kay Johannsen org SWR Vocal Ensemble Stuttgart / Marcus Creed

(Hänssler Classic)

'These 10 psalms are not first recordings but most of them have dropped out of the catalogue, so this is largely unknown Ives. This fine collection is a revelation in performances like these from the outstanding Stuttgart choir under its British conductor...' Read the review

 

Symphony No 2. The Unanswered Question

New York Philharmonic Orchestra / Leonard Bernstein

(DG)

'This wonderful symphony begins sounding for all the world as though it longs to be Brahms's Second or Dvořák's Eighth. The old European traditions roll out in well-nourished strings and text-book counterpoints; here and there a hint of New England rural is tempered with a little Johann Sebastian; but only when ''Columbia, Gem of the Ocean'' pops up in the horns do we know we are well and truly in Ives country. Bernstein makes a point of playing it like Brahms, with bows richly drawn in appreciation – a thanksgiving hymn from old America. He conducted the scandalously belated premiere back in 1951 and is known to love it more than any other American symphony...' Read the review

 

‘A Song - For Anything’

Gerald Finley bar Julius Drake pf

(Hyperion)

'Gerald Finley has made many excellent records and, as far as I can recall, never a poor or indifferent one. But if he is not by this time universally recognised as a singer of the front rank, this should leave no doubt of it. These songs can encourage at one extreme a rough declamatory style and at the other an almost voiceless intimacy. Without in any way underplaying, Finley is always essentially a singer – his tone and command of the singing line are a pleasure in themselves. But he also has the absolute mastery of the composer’s idioms and, with Julius Drake, his fearless and totally committed pianist, the technical, virtuosic skills to realise his intentions with complete conviction of naturalness...' Read the review

 

Piano Works and Songs

Susan Graham mez Pierre-Laurent Aimard pf

(Warner Classics)

'Ives’s imagination – his rampant theatricality – should have made for great operas. Instead he wrote songs: capsule dramas laid out not in scenes or acts but moments in time. Susan Graham inhabits 17 such moments – nostalgic (‘Songs my mother taught me’), visionary (‘A sound of distant horn’), cryptic (‘Soliloquy’), brutal (‘1, 2, 3’), expectant (‘Thoreau’) – and the feminine and masculine qualities of her voice, to say nothing of her musical sensibility, easily encompass the ‘expectancy and ecstasy’ promised by the song ‘Memories’ – which appropriately enough recalls her (and others like her) as a little girl ‘sitting in the opera house’. Aimard is again a one-man band. Almost literally so in ‘The Circus Band’. When Graham shouts ‘hear the trombones’, you really do...' Read the review

 

Violin Sonatas

Curt Thompson vn Rodney Waters pf

Naxos

'In reviewing ECM’s Hansheinz Schneeberger and Daniel Cholette, I indicated problems that European performers can have with Ives. Compared with Gregory Fulkerson and Robert Shannon they failed to swing and their recorded sound is unattractive. There’s no problem with the Texan-born Curt Thompson, who has delved deeply into Ives in a doctoral thesis on these sonatas. He and Rodney Waters make an excellent duo...' Read the review

 

'Charles Ives - An American Journey'

Thomas Hampson bar San Francisco Symphony Orchestra and Chorus / Michael Tilson Thomas

(RCA)

'If anyone has a hot­line to the cortex of Ives’s imagination‚ it is Michael Tilson Thomas. The programme he has devised here is not so much a journey‚ more a stream of consciousness through the hinterlands of Ives Americana. An alternative American dream. It’s about the things that mattered to Ives: the times‚ places‚ events that fashioned the nation and enabled it to find its own way. It’s a landscape of ballad songs and snatches‚ of hymns‚ marches‚ tall tales and short orders‚ assembled exactly as the man remem­bered them and entirely in keeping with the chaotic comedy of life. But above all‚ it’s about the spirit within us all – great and small...' Read the review

 

Concord Sonata

Philip Mead pf

(Metier)

'Philip Mead’s performance is loud, rude and jammed with idiosyncratic corners. Charles Ives would have been hugely appreciative and admiring...'

Gramophone Collection: Charles Ives's Concord Sonata

 

Three Orchestral Sets

Malmo Chamber Chorus; Malmö Symphony Orchestra / James Sinclair

(Naxos)

'The novelty here is the Third Set. The first two movements come from sketches edited by David Gray Porter. The opening Andante has a structure similar to Central Park in the Dark with typical Ives chords and a texture building to a crisis with something left hanging softly at the end. The second movement is called “During Camp Meetin’ Week: One Secular Afternoon”. This again is Ives’s idiosyncratic territory with lots of quotations including “Columbia the Gem of the Ocean” twice and a four-part hymn about the Day of Judgement – not so secular after all?...' Read the review

 

Central Park in the Dark. Three Places in New England, etc

Melbourne Symphony Orchestra / Sir Andrew Davis

(Chandos)

'The two early Ives symphonies recorded by the same team (5/15) are relatively plain sailing compared with some of these pieces, which are just as shocking as they always have been. I mean the great blasts of glorious frenzy in Central Park in the Dark; ‘The Fourth of July’; and the second and third movements of Three Places in New England, all written – amazingly – in the early years of the last century. The difference between the many recordings depends on which elements of an overcrowded texture are allowed to dominate. For example, Ives quotes his own Country Band March in ‘Putnam’s Camp’ – it’s first heard early on in the strings, but at the last climax, with everything else going on as well, it’s less prominent with the Melbourne performance than in some. That’s all part of the richness of the Ives experience...' Read the review

 

Symphony No 4

Seattle Symphony Orchestra, Seattle Symphony Chorale / Ludovic Morlot

(Seattle Symphony Media)

'From the start of the Fourth Symphony, the Seattle engineers raise the piano in the mix, its basso profundo low register punching above its weight as expressionistic strings swarm. And you begin to get an inkling of the symphony’s vistas and perspectives: solo strings, then flute, join the piano in invoking the chamber music sections of the Concord Sonata as the orchestra and chorus muscle up the volume. The second movement is especially fine, the ragtime rhythmic energy of the opening frogmarched towards thunderous burn-out as Morlot keeps subliminal details ticking over: the microtonal skid of a honky-tonk piano shyly peeks above the orchestral frame before dragging a solo violin into its orbit, all abruptly snuffed out by a loud-mouthed, raucous marching band...' Read the review

 

Explore Charles Ives's life and music...

Charles Ives: lonely American giant

'He plunged ahead solely on the basis of his ear, his stamina, his conviction, his talent and his need to create' (John McClure, Gramophone, April 1967)... Read more

Gramophone Collection: Charles Ives's Concord Sonata

Charles Ives left his Concord Sonata for solo piano unfinished for a reason. But what that reason was remains unclear – which, says Philip Clark, presents a challenge to pianists who tackle the work on record... Read more

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