IVES: December. Disclosure. Down East. Dreams. Du alte Mutter. Du bist wie eine Blume. Élégie. The Ending Year. Evening. Evidence. Eyes so Dark. Far from my Heav'nly Home. Far in the Wood. Feldeinsamkeit. General William Booth Enters into Heaven. Grantchester. The Greatest Man. Others.
Various performers.
Naxos 8.559270 (B) (DDD) TT: 67:37

Naxos takes on yet another large project with an edition of all of Ives' completed songs, of which this CD constitutes the second volume. It may seem eccentric at first, but the producers have made no attempt to "program" the songs. Rather, they have released the songs alphabetically by title. Thus, volume 2 consists of those songs from "December" to "Gruss" (volume 1, Naxos 8.559269, presents "1, 2, 3" to "Cradle Song"). However, Ives himself didn't group his songs. He seemed to write them whenever he found or wrote a text he wanted to set, a bit like picking wildflowers. Other than chronologically, alphabetically seems as good a presentation as any.

The sheer variety of Ives's songs astonishes all by itself: Lieder, mélodies, cowboy tunes, parlor ballads, little hymns, church arias, college songs, campaign tunes, as well as those experimental pieces that seem to adhere most closely to our notions of Ives. The songs make clear, however, that Ives is a veritable cornucopia of styles, that he, like Whitman, contains multitudes.

There have been outstanding recorded recitals of this music, beginning with Mordecai Bauman's pioneering 78s. Although his diction could be a bit too precise, he nevertheless sang Ives as if it were the most natural thing in the world. His rendition of the fate of cowpuncher "Charlie Rutlage," along with native-born Texan Thomas Stewart's, is the finest I've heard. Other outstanding recorded programs dedicated to Ives include Marni Nixon (available on EMI), Evelyn Lear and the aforementioned Thomas Stewart, and Gregg Smith's Ives series for Columbia, which I don't believe ever made it to CD.

Naxos has chosen to go with a battery mainly of singers at the beginning of their careers. All sing at a professional level, though some have rough edges here and there and need interpretive seasoning. Robert Gardner stands out on "Down East," a rich interpretation sung in a dark yet flexible baritone. Others who sang above the old mill run include mezzos Tamara Mumford and Leah Wool, sopranos Sara Jakubiak, and Lielle Berman, and tenor Kenneth Tarver. Bass David Pittsinger had the bad luck to draw "General William Booth Enters into Heaven," one of Ives's greatest songs, and baritone Michael Cavalieri "Grantchester" (ditto). I must say they do well, but unfortunately I've heard better. I sense a hitch in their communication -- that they sound like they're singing a song, rather than enfolding the listener in a drama -- especially when I compare them to singers like Marni Nixon and Evelyn Lear. Still, over all the risk Naxos has taken pays off. The variety of voices echoes the variety of the music.

Albany Recordings, probably under the guidance of pianist Steven Blier (intrepid explorer of American song), has also released a four-volume set of Ives's songs, which I haven't heard. Singers include William Sharp and Paul Sperry, to name only the best-known. However, you pay more for Albany than for Naxos.

S.G.S. (September 2008)