Subject: I have found a CD that I think you would enjoy
|Ives, Warren, Wagner|
Celestial Country / Abram in Egypt
The short life of "Charles Ives, public composer."
Bob Zeidler | Charlton, MA United States | 11/25/2003
(4 out of 5 stars)
"Charles Ives was a "public" composer for only a brief time, after which - and for the remaining time of his active composing career - he composed strictly in private, essentially as a part-time activity while being engaged full-time as a business executive in the life insurance industry.
The catalyzing event that caused this shift was the premiere performance, and the subsequent print press reception, of the major work on this CD, his cantata "The Celestial Country." Composed in the years immediately following his graduation from Yale, the cantata was first performed on April 18, 1902 (almost exactly four years after leaving Yale) at the Central Presbyterian Church in New York (where Ives was the organist), to a full house, with Ives conducting the work from his organ console.
The two reviews (one in the New York Times and one in Musical Courier, both of them reprinted in their entirety in "Charles Ives and His World," edited by J. Peter Burkholder) were hardly dismissive of the work. From the Times, we read "The composition seems worthy of a more complete hearing. It has the elementary merit of being scholarly and well made. But it is also spirited and melodious..." The review from the Musical Courier concludes with a paragraph stating that "An audience completely filling the church listened with expressions of pleasure, and at the close the composer was overwhelmed with congratulations, which he accepted in modest fashion."
It is difficult, stylistically speaking, to go back in time a full century and endeavor to "read between the lines" of these reviews to see what it was about them - particularly the Musical Courier review - that managed to get under Ives's skin. In any event, this is "water under the bridge"; the work lay dormant after that single performance for another 70 years (and a full 18 years after Ives's death) until it was performed in 1972 by the Gregg Smith Singers. Harold Farberman was also an exceedingly active Ives advocate in that early '70s time frame, and this recording (remastered from a 1973 LP on the CRI label) represents the very first recording of the work.
While hardly a "long-lost/now-found masterpiece," "The Celestial Country" is nonetheless an important bit of Ivesiana, one that may well appeal to those who ordinarily give his music a wide berth. The work bears some resemblance to a superficially similar work by his Yale teacher, Horatio Parker. That work is Parker's "Hora novissima" oratorio, like the Ives based on texts by Bernard of Cluny, a 12th century monk. But, whereas Parker set his work in the original Latin, Ives has his in English translation, and the texts appear to not overlap (perhaps a conscious decision on Ives's part).
The two works diverge considerably, once past the textual (and, to a lesser extent, structural) similarities. Where the Parker work amounts to little more than Victorian kitsch these days, "The Celestial Country" already exhibits some of the "Ives the experimentalist" qualities for which he'd later become famous. The Ives work, scored for tenor and baritone vocal soloists, a double quartet of vocal soloists as well as a larger mixed chorus, with instrumental support provided by string quartet, trumpet, euphonium, organ and timpani, goes its own way early on, with a mildly dissonant organ introduction, with other equally dissonant organ interludes separating the major movements of the work.
In an unusual juxtaposition of forces and styles, the work includes an Intermezzo for String Quartet at -as one might imagine - its midpoint. There are also two nice arias, one each for the tenor and baritone soloists. But it is the choral writing that catches one's attention, especially a Double Chorus, a cappella and the concluding Chorale and Finale, where Ives brings in the full instrumental support, including two brass horns (trumpet and euphonium), organ and timpani. The cantata ends in a wonderful flourish; a happy ending that well fits the optimistic text set out by Bernard of Cluny.
Recordings of this work are hard to come by, but I have managed to track down two others besides this Farberman performance. One of them - led by Stephen Cleobury directing the BBC Singers (Collins Classics 1479-2, but, like the Farberman, sadly out of print) - is a close contender for top honors. But Farberman's performance carries the day, particularly by virtue of its double quartet and the rousing conclusion, highlighted by a euphonium player who really rips (as I'm sure the score indicates he should) and a lead soprano (Hazel Holt) who really nails an obligato high C near the end. In at least these details, this Farberman performance tops the Cleobury one, most other factors being equal. But one DOES wish that Sony would treat its back catalog more respectfully, and remaster and reissue the Gregg Smith Singers performance, which has yet to make it to CD.
The filler work, another cantata, this by Elinor Remick Warren titled "Abram in Egypt" and dated 1960, is an adequate if not particularly memorable work. Warren (1900-1991), by all accounts a child prodigy both in composition and as a pianist, had a long, if not especially notable, career as a composer. (Perhaps this is somehow related to the fact that she spent virtually her entire life on the west coast, away from the east coast arts and culture spotlight.) In any event, the work is thoroughly professional, reminding me at times of similar neoromantic choral works by Howard Hanson and Randall Thompson. Not bad; but you'll want this CD for the Ives work.
The recorded sound is fine, save for a very brief and minor amount of pre-echo at the beginning of the Chorale and Finale of the Ives work (probably the result of having the master tape in storage for a considerable length of time).