December 04, 2008


Ives: Songs, Volume 6. Lielle Berman, David Trevor Bircher, Patrick Carfizzi, Jennifer Casey Cabot, Michael Cavalieri, Robert Gardner, Amanda Ingram, Sara Jakubiak, Sumi Kittelberger, Ryan MacPherson, Diego Matamoros, Tamara Mumford, Mary Phillips, David Pittsinger, Matthew Plenk, Rebecca Ringle, Kenneth Tarver and Leah Wool, vocalists; Douglas Dickson, Laura Garritson, J.J. Penna and Eric Trudel, piano. Naxos. $8.99.

Stanford: Symphony No. 1; Clarinet Concerto. Robert Plane, clarinet; Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra conducted by David Lloyd-Jones. Naxos. $8.99.

     The final volume in Naxos’ six-CD release of the songs of Charles Ives brings to 193 the number of Ives songs in the series – far more than Ives released himself as 114 Songs, and still a somewhat uncertain number. As with so much involving Ives, a lot depends on how you look at things. In this sixth volume, for example, “Two Slants (Christian and Pagan)” are counted as two separate songs dated 1921; but they could as easily be considered parts of a single work. And in this volume and others, the same song may appear in multiple guises – once in German, for instance, and once in an English translation – and be counted multiple times. Furthermore, this final volume contains a song dated 1942 – nearly two decades after Ives stopped writing songs. But “They Are There!” is simply a verbal update for World War II of the song Ives wrote in 1917 for World War I, “He Is There!” The lesson in all this is that the numbers do not really matter, but the music does. And this comprehensive survey of all the songs that Ives completed certainly shows the importance of the song in his compositional output – and the fascinating ways in which his song writing developed. The latter will have to be ferreted out by listeners, though, because the series’ alphabetical arrangement means constant juxtaposition of later and earlier Ives songs for no reason beyond their titles (thus, the sixth volume contains three consecutive songs in German, including one from 1906 whose text comes from the Des Knaben Wunderhorn collection much favored by Mahler). Just by the luck of the alphabet, this concluding CD does not contain as many top-notch Ives songs as some earlier volumes (the fifth is best in this respect). Still, there are some gems here, such as “Thoreau” (1915), whose mood parallels that of the “Concord” Sonata; “Vote for Names! Names! Names!” (1912), an effective one-minute condemnation of election-year excesses, in which three pianos represent three different candidates and the voice stands for the put-upon voter; “Tolerance” (1913), another very brief song, in which Ives affirms the interdependence of all people; “West London” (1921), a heartfelt setting of a Matthew Arnold sonnet; and the last song on the CD, “Yellow Leaves” (1923), whose ambiguous tonality and autumnal theme make it a fitting conclusion for an excellent cycle even though it stands at the end only because of its spelling of its title.

     The final volume in Naxos’ series of the symphonies of Sir Charles Villiers Stanford is the one that finally offers his first symphony – a substantial work that dates to 1876 (when Stanford was 24) and shows Stanford to have been heavily influenced by Schumann, Mendelssohn, Schubert and Brahms without having developed a strong individual musical personality. Some would argue that he never did develop one, at least in his symphonies. It is certainly true that, harmonically and structurally, he remained attached to 19th-century symphonic models throughout his life. Stanford’s First Symphony is more amiable than intense, although it shows fine command of orchestration and counterpoint – and considerable expressiveness. The scherzo, marked “In Ländler Tempo,” is especially interesting: it is an intermezzo with two nicely contrasting trios. This is not a symphony of great depth, but it certainly shows a young composer with potential. The volumes of this series released earlier let listeners judge to what extent that potential was fulfilled.

     The symphony is paired with a very well-played performance of Stanford’s Clarinet Concerto – one of his few works that is still heard in concert with some frequency. Here it is not only the musical language that is reminiscent of Brahms: Stanford wrote the work for and dedicated it to Richard Mühlfeld, for whom Brahms had written his famous late-career clarinet works. But Mühlfeld rejected Stanford’s work, for no known reason – although it is worth pointing out that Stanford’s concerto lacks the ease of flow and beauty of thematic material to be found in Brahms. Stanford’s concerto was first played in 1903, six years after Brahms’ death, but it does sound like a throwback to earlier times (while Brahms’ own clarinet music, for all its romanticism, often seems to look ahead). As in his First Symphony, Stanford keeps the mood of his Clarinet Concert pleasantly expressive, making the work easy to listen to (although scarcely easy to play: Robert Plane handles its difficulties very skillfully). There is little depth to either the symphony or the concerto, but both are very well put together and show Stanford to have been a very fine craftsman, if scarcely an inspired composer.

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