August 14, 2008


Ives: Songs, Volumes 1 and 2. Janna Baty, Lielle Berman, Heather Buck, Jennifer Casey Cabot, Michael Cavalieri, Robert Gardner, Ian Howell, Sara Jakubiak, Sumi Kittelberger, Tamara Mumford, Mary Phillips, David Pittsinger, Matthew Plenk, Kenneth Tarver and Leah Wool, vocalists; Biava String Quartet (Volume 1); Frederick Teardo, organ; Eric Trudel, Laura Garritson, J.J. Penna and Douglas Dickson, piano. Naxos. $8.99 each.

Hovhaness: Fanfare for the New Atlantis; Concerto No. 2 for Guitar and Strings; Symphony No. 63, “Loon Lake.” Javier Calderón, guitar; Royal Scottish National Orchestra conducted by Stewart Robertson. Naxos. $8.99.

      If there is one musical form through which it is possible to follow Charles Ives’ career, it is the song: he began writing songs in his teens and continued throughout his compositional life, into the 1920s. His collection, 114 Songs, represents the greater part of his output but not all of it: he wrote a total of some 200. An ambitious six-volume set of all Ives’ songs is in the process of being released by Naxos, and it is a very welcome addition to the Ives discography despite some production idiosyncrasies. The principal one of those is the arrangement of the songs: they are given in alphabetical order, which is about as arbitrary as one can get and which makes no musical sense whatsoever. Because there are so many songs per CD – 29 in Volume 1, 26 in Volume 2 – a listener who wants to hear them in, say, compositional order, is going to have a lot of track rearranging to do. It is true that the alphabetical arrangement results in some highly interesting juxtapositions – Chanson de Florian of 1898 immediately followed by Charlie Rutlage of 1920 in Volume 1, for example – but the main thing this setup produces is confusion. Still, listeners interested in completeness and in hearing a wide variety of young performers bring a wide variety of interpretative nuances to Ives’ vocal output will get a great deal of pleasure from these Naxos CDs. All vocal ranges are amply represented, even including countertenor: Ian Howell, who sings At Sea (1921) and A Christmas Carol (1894) in Volume 1. Here you will find Ives at his most piquant (‘1,2,3’ and Ann Street) and his most extended and heartfelt (General William Booth Enters into Heaven). You will hear his earliest works (those most steeped in the European lieder tradition), such as Far from my Heav’nly Home (1893) and several songs in German, as well as his latest and most complex pieces, such as Aeschylus and Sophocles (1923). By turns expansive and compressed, spun-out and exhilarating, the songs are sometimes misses, sometimes marvels, and always worth hearing for anyone interested in plumbing Ives’ considerable depths.

      The form with which Alan Hovhaness is most closely identified is not vocal but instrumental: he was an amazingly prolific symphonist, with some 70 symphonies to his credit (67 of them numbered) out of a total of more than 400 works (not counting at least an equal number of early pieces that he burned in the 1930s and 1940s so as to start his composing career anew). Symphony No. 63, “Loon Lake,” partakes of some of the nostalgia that Ives evinced in his musical sketches of New England – Hovhaness’ work recalls the New Hampshire countryside of his youth – but the musical language is quite different. Written in 1988, the two-movement symphony is expansive and pastoral in orientation, and the performance by the Royal Scottish National Orchestra under Stewart Robertson gives it plenty of room to breathe. The other works on this CD show different sides of Hovhaness’ legacy. Fanfare for the New Atlantis (1975) is a full-orchestral imagination of the rebirth of the legendary sunken island nation. Concerto No. 2 for Guitar and Strings dates to 1985, six years after Hovhaness wrote his first guitar concerto, and is cast in four-movement form with emphasis on frequent rhythmic changes and dance-style music – a surprising focus for a classical composition of the mid-1980s. It gets its world premiere recording on this CD, and is played with considerable enthusiasm by Javier Calderón, with an especially bouncy finale. Hovhaness’ music is always hard to pin down, deriving in part from his Armenian and Scottish heritage and in part from his studies of the ancient music of India, Hawaii, Japan, and Korea – all the while attempting to maintain melodic flow and an emotional connection to the audience. Indeed, Hovhaness sometimes seems to pack too many expectations into his works; but heard on an individual basis, as on this CD, they reflect well on his complex vision.

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