Ives worked with choirs as a young organist; his father’s choir tried out versions of some of these pieces but they wouldn’t have got very far. Most of these psalms began life in the 1890s but Ives went on revising them into the 1920s.
The most familiar is Psalm 67, God be merciful unto us, with its superimposed gentle bitonal chords – expertly balanced in this performance. Psalm 90 sets a pattern followed in some of the others – there’s a low C held in the organ pedal throughout, consonant chords or unison passages erupt into clusters and back, and a generally mystical atmosphere prevails. This is emphasised by three sets of bells and a low gong “as church bells in distance” that characterise the serene final section. There are more prominent bells in the jubilant Psalm 100. Nobody but Ives could have dreamt up textures like these.
Psalm 135 adds trumpet, trombone, timpani and tenor and bass drums. The percussion creates a subdued march effect against the choir singing in five-time, and there’s word-painting for the vapours, lightning and winds. Psalm 25 has extended canons between male and female voices, the whole thing underpinned again by long held pedal notes in the organ. Ives’s early Victorian style is represented by Psalm 42, with a lovely solo from Julius Pfeiffer.
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.