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Charles Ives

June 2024
2min read

Piano Music Piano Sonatas Nos. 1 and 2 and other works

Cincinnati Philharmonia Orchestra, Gerhard Samuel, conductor, C. C.M. Percussion Ensemble and Chamber Choir, Centaur CRC 2205 (one CD) .

The Cleveland Orchestra, Christoph von Dohn․nyi, conductor, London 443 172-2 (one CD) .

Nina Deutsch, Piano, VoxBox CDX 5089 (two CDs) .

Charles Ives worked on and off for most of his life on a magnum opus he called the Universe Symphony. He never expected, or even intended, to finish it. It was to be “a presentation and contemplation in tones, rather than in music as such, of the mysterious creation of the earth and firmament, the evolution of all life in nature and in humanity to the Divine.” In other words, it was about as hopelessly ambitious in scope as a human undertaking can be. He didn’t get very far with it, unsurprisingly, but he did suggest that “in case I don’t get to finish this, somebody might like to try to work out the idea.” That is what the composer Larry Austin has spent most of the last twenty years doing. The result may be more Austin than Ives, but it commands respect as an attempt to get at what Ives was attempting, and it is fascinating. In its thirty-eight minutes it moves from original chaos through the creation and humanity to heaven and “the rise of all to the Spiritual.” The one long movement starts in absolute stillness and very gradually grows over its first eighteen minutes to a sea of lapping, crisscrossing waves of percussion rhythms before brass instruments, and then strings and a wordless choir pull in and the sea of sound continues to grow. At the climax some very loud moments of near tunefulness lead into a growing quiet that culminates in eight seconds of screaming silence several minutes from the end. It doesn’t sound like anything else by Ives—or by anyone else—but it does reach very far indeed in the direction Ives seems to have been seeking and suggests why he was heading that way.

The Fourth Symphony is cosmic Ives of a more familiar cast. Its first movement is a choral setting of a classic American hymn, “Watchman, tell us of the night, What the signs of promise are. …” The three succeeding movements expatiate on that inquiry; the tumultuous second is, in the composer’s words, “a comedy in the sense that Hawthorne’s Celestial Railroad is comedy,” and it surges with trademark snatches of march music and tunes like “Yankee Doodle” and “Reveille”; the third movement is a restrained fugal reflection on the hymn “From Greenland’s icy mountains …”; and the fourth draws together elements of the three previous ones in a kind of musical apotheosis. The Cleveland Orchestra’s fine new recording also includes Ives’s epigrammatic six-minute masterpiece “The Unanswered Question” and the French avant-garde composer Edgard Varèse’s 1921 work Amériques , a sort of New World Rite of Spring complete with sirens that give much of it something of a fun-house air.

Ives’s supreme tribute to transcendentalism, the Concord Sonata (its four movements are titled “Emerson,” “Hawthorne,” “The Alcotts,” and “Thoreau”), gets an excellent reading by the pianist Nina Deutsch in her two-CD set of the composer’s major piano pieces. It is one of a number of bargain-priced VoxBox sets of solid performances of American concert, band, and vocal music. A free catalogue of them is available from the Vox Music Group, 560 Sylvan Avenue, Englewood Cliffs, NJ 07632.

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