August 23, 2007


Ives: Variations on “America”; Overture and March “1776”; They Are There! (A War Song March); Old Home Days: Suite for Band; March Intercollegiate; Fugue in C; March: “Omega Lambda Chi”; Variations on “Jerusalem the Golden”; A Son of a Gambolier; Postlude in F;’ “Country Band” March; Decoration Day; Charlie Rutlage; The Circus Band; Runaway Horse on Main Street; March No. 6, with “Here’s to Good Old Yale”; “The Alcotts.” United States Marine Band conducted by Colonel Timothy W. Foley. Naxos. $8.99.

      You’ve never heard Ives quite like this. Here are 21 arrangements (five of them as movements within a suite) of various and sundry Ives works, sketches, bits and pieces, arranged and transcribed and otherwise made to fit the polished perfectionism of “The President’s Own,” as the United States Marine Band is known. This is a band with a very elegant sound, beautifully rounded and without rough edges. Its playing is well-mannered and refined – and, you might well think, exactly wrong for the thumb-your-nose-at-the-musical-establishment sonic world of Ives.

      Yet this is a marvelous disc, partly because a great deal of the music is unfamiliar; partly because much of it is early, tonal Ives; partly because the arrangements are excellent; but mostly because the United States Marine Band – although its inability to cut loose makes a CD of it performing Ives seem an incongruity – plays these pieces so superbly.

      The most interesting thing that ardent Ivesians will learn from this disc is that the composer was quite capable of writing a march as good as Sousa’s. “March Intercollegiate,” with its strong military beat, is a gem that might have been written by the March King himself. “March: ‘Omega Lambda Chi,’” written for a nonexistent Yale fraternity that was used as a joke on incoming freshmen, is also Sousa-like, sounding much like “The Liberty Bell” at start and finish. For a greater blend of the Sousa sound with Ives’ rough-hewn humor, there is “March No. 6, with ‘Here’s to Good Old Yale,’” in which the straitlaced elements of Sousa are somewhat subsumed…or subdued.

      Other march tunes here are more recognizably Ivesian. “Overture and March ‘1776’” moves from a subtle, quiet opening to loud dissonances with many off-beats, and prominently includes one of Ives’ favorite tunes, “Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean.” That song also figures in “They Are There! (A War Song March,” a snappy pastiche of patriotic tunes that ends with “Reveille,” much as Ives’ Second Symphony does. “A Son of a Gambolier” is a march, too: a light and flippant piece with some Sousa-like elements – but greater intricacy. “The Circus Band,” a quickstep with off-rhythms, is great fun, and the players handle it without missing a beat. But perhaps this is a case of being a touch too good: it sounds odd when Ives seems this easy to play. That is also the case with the raucous “‘Country Band’ March,” which eventually became part of “Three Places in New England.” This is bright, jolly, highly complex music that just shouldn’t sound so darned smooth as it does here – although it must be said that this is a performance in which you can actually hear all the tunes (a real rarity).

      There are a number of Ives’ solemn pieces interspersed among the marches. The four-voice “Fugue in C” is warm and hymnlike, building slowly, then suddenly reaching a climax before fading out. “Variations on ‘Jerusalem the Golden’” is warm and hymnlike as well, quiet almost throughout, and ending with music clearly meant to go with the word “amen.” “Postlude in F” is a more chromatic hymn. And “Decoration Day” (the second movement of “Four New England Holidays”) – whose title refers to the holiday now called Memorial Day – sounds particularly affecting in this arrangement. It starts seriously and with solemnity, played with feeling and close attention to the appearance of “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” “Taps” and other tunes. Then a strong march (as people go home from the cemetery) bursts through – only to subside into memory and thoughtfulness.

      As for the remaining pieces: “Old Home Days” consists of five short movements based on early Ives works – a short, warm Waltz; a double march called “The Opera House and Old Home Day”; a quiet, churchlike interlude called “The Collection”; a funereal but not particularly sad “Slow March”; and an eruption of gaiety in which Ives plays games with the song, “London Bridge Is Fallen Down!” “Charlie Rutlage” starts and ends as a cowboy tune, but its central section is packed with dissonance and dramatic cross-rhythms. “Runaway Horse on Main Street” is rhythmically very complex as well, although these players handle it with apparent ease.

      The CD’s opening and closing pieces make appropriate bookends. “Variations on ‘America’” introduces the disc in a version whose intensity and humor lie somewhere between Ives’ original for organ and William Schuman’s well-known and somewhat overly bright version for full orchestra. The percussion is a highlight here – parts of the piece are genuinely funny. At disc’s end is the pensive “The Alcotts” from the “Concord Sonata,” played with hearthside warmth and close attention to the interruptions of the famed Beethoven’s Fifth theme, to which Ives gave an important role.

      A sonic delight, this CD is perhaps not ideal for Ives purists – but it is purely enjoyable from start to finish.

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