IVES: Songs. Set No. 1 for Small Orchestra. Tone Roads No. 1. From the Steeples and Mountains. Tone Roads No. 3. Set No. 3 for Small Orchestra: "At Sea." Mists. The Rainbow. The Gong on the Hook and Ladder. All the Way Around and Back. Over the Pavements. Set No. 2 for Small Orchestra. Aeschylus and Sophocles. Set for Theater or Chamber Orchestra.
Marni Nixon (soprano), John McCabe (piano), Henry Herford (baritone), Ensemble Modern/Ingo Metzmacher.
EMI 50999 2 06631 2 (M) (DDD/ADD) TT: 79:34

Great music, lousy program. In the thirty-odd years of Ives's mature composing career, he turned out quite a bit, much of it very short pieces, but often in several versions. Ives loved to revise and very rarely considered anything finished. The famous song, "The Cage," for example, shows up both as a song and as an instrumental.

Instrumental versions of the songs comprise most of the "sets." It's awfully hard to make a song into an instrumental, and Ives doesn't succeed all that often here, in the sense that the song versions are far more interesting than their instrumental clones. Unfortunately, I know these movements as songs. Gregg Smith and his singers recorded them in a wonderful Columbia LP series, as far as I know never transferred to CD. It might be time. All of them come across with greater vigor than their soggy counterparts here.

The disc is bifurcated as well. Part of it consists of a song recital by Marni Nixon and John McCabe, from the Sixties. The other belongs to Metzmacher and the Ensemble Modern, roughly thirty years later. Nixon's program is some of the best, most communicative singing you've ever heard, with McCabe an equal partner who revels in the quirks of Ives's accompaniments. Nixon, a superb singing actress, conveys a sweet innocence, minus the sentimentality in songs like "The Greatest Man" (Joan Morris would do this one quite well, too). She creates vivid scenes in the two extended songs, "Charlie Rutledge" and "General William Booth Enters Heaven," two of the composer's greatest works, let alone songs. I think her singing would have pleased Ives no end.

Metzmacher's another story. The notes are there, the rhythms are accurate, the ensemble clear as a bell, but the performance sputters. Certain movements lay there. Others -- "Calcium Light Night," Over the Pavements, "Gyp the Blood," From the Steeples and Mountains, Aeschylus and Sophocles, for example -- come to life. In all, a mixed bag, but worth getting for Marni Nixon alone.

S.G.S. (August 2008)