A Performance That Is Felt
Chris Speaks | Winston-Salem, NC | 12/11/2009
(5 out of 5 stars)
"Grammy Award-winning soprano Susan Narucki and accomplished pianist Donald Berman have released this disc - their interpretation of 27 songs by Charles Ives extending from his time as a student at Yale to his virtual retirement from composition some 20 years later. Recorded over the span of three days during March 2008 at the Purchase College recital hall in New York City, the songs, ranging from Ives' pre-1902 "nice" period to his white hot maturity, convey the immense span of change which Ives underwent as a composer.
This isn't either performer's first time working with Ives' material. Narucki has previously appeared on Decca's fabulous "Ives: When The Moon, Songs Set for Orchestra," where she earned great praise for her performance, and Berman has released "The Unknown Ives, Volume 1 and 2," featuring Ives' lesser known piano pieces. Both performers, being strong advocates of twentieth-century and contemporary music, bring that certain "contemporary" flare to Ives' songs as the angular qualities of the songs are more pronounced - but not at the expense of the more transcendental aspects of the music. Even the track listing has the effect of heightening the inner drama: the more traditional, reflective "Where the Eagle Cannot See" (from 1906) is followed by the alarming dissonance of Ives' work of genius "General William Booth Enters Into Heaven" (from 1917). Regardless, I must say that I find the interpretation on a majority of the tracks, even Ives' less traditional work, to be wholly successful. "Tom Sails Away" (from 1917) is truly noteworthy, with the Narucki and Berman accentuating its ephemeral, otherworldly qualities. It's as if you're truly experiencing the emotions associated with Ives' own personal memories. The performers also demonstrate great control over "West London" (from 1921), renowned for being an extremely difficult song in Ives' song catalogue. On the whole, Narucki and Berman demonstrate their proficiency with this material and feel at home with it. Most of the performances sound natural, unforced, and entirely convincing.
However, it's hard not to make comparisons to the landmark and long-treasured de Gaetani/Kalish recording for Nonesuch from 1976, not only because de Gaetani/Kalish set the standard for what a quality album of Ives' songs sound like but also because the performances on this disc are nearly on par with such a standard. There are, of course, notable differences. Narucki sounds more removed from the songs than de Gaetani. For instance, you might compare Narucki/Berman's performance of "The Things Our Fathers Loved" with de Gaetani/Kalish's. Narucki is less sentimental, less plaintive, but more exultant whereas de Gaetani is more reflective, emphasizing the passing of something special. De Gaetani is more reminiscent. On a less traditional song like "Ann Street," Narucki and Berman do not meld quite as seamlessly. Such nuances as these are to be somewhat expected, though.
Where this disc falls short is, in my opinion, ironically, in the breadth of its treatment of the songs: where the de Gaetani/Kalish recording particularly excelled is that it left the listener wanting more; this disc, however, seems to drag on at times. The song list was proposed by American musicologist H. Wiley Hitchcock, founder of the Institute for Studies in American Music and former president of the Charles Ives Society. After 27 diverse selections, this set starts to feel like more of an anthology than an album, and it's this lack of cohesion that I find troubling. Most of the songs are extremely short. In fact, only 11 of the 27 exceed the two minute mark. Due to this rather quick-paced exploration spanning over 20 years of Ives' evolution as a composer of both traditional and non-traditional song, it's easy to feel slightly exhausted afterwards.
The solidity of the performances, though, make any shortcoming of the disc is a minor one at worst. Again, both performers demonstrate their competence with the unique idioms which characterize Ives' music.