While Charles Ives is remembered for his more radical and experimental instrumental works, often in his songs he had a chameleonic tendency to mimic other styles. With such a varied palette of colors, the Ives songs have appealed to many singers recently in my ears, including Nathan Gunn, Susan Graham, Thomas Meglioranza, and Thomas Hampson. This set of thirty songs by the American composer pairs some of these almost sentimental, backward-looking songs with others featuring more of Ives's spikier harmonies. Schmaltzy parlor songs self-consciously recall the salon music of Ives's youth in Songs My Mother Taught Me and On the Counter. Ives also gives not unconvincing imitations of a Debussy mélodie (Mists), Hugo Wolf (Ilmenau, a setting of a Goethe poem), and revivalist Americana (his harmonization of At the River would make for a fascinating comparison with the much better-known version by Aaron Copland).
Romanzo di Central Park (Ives songs), G. Finley, J. Drake
(released February 12, 2008)
The voice of Canadian baritone Gerald Finley expands from a silky ribbon of mellow tone to a roar that can border on harshness without really crossing it. As noted of Christian Gerhaher singing German songs, Finley loves the details of language and displays the clearest diction of these texts, without spitting into the microphone or becoming affected. With sure intonation that hits the center of the pitch even against complicated harmonies, Finley polishes subtle, enigmatic songs like Evening, on an exquisite snippet from Paradise Lost, to a gem-like luster. Two songs have violin obbligati, played here by Magnus Johnston, including the odd ending of They Are There!, where the violin adds notes by itself that sound like a mistake. The song, first composed in 1917 for WWI, was then revised in 1942, with words altered to refer to Hitler, "this cursed war, / All started by a sneaking gouger, making slaves of men" (only one of a number of revision questions plaguing the Ives oeuvre).
The disc's charming title song, Romanzo (di Central Park), sets a text of merely twelve rhymed words, created by Leigh Hunt to illustrate a poem "of which we require no more than the rhymes to be acquainted with the whole" (in an essay called Rhyme and Reason, cited in the thorough liner notes by Calum Macdonald). The violin of Johnston has the real melody, a syrupy tribute to the now neglected composer Victor Herbert (according to John Kirkpatrick), which the voice joins with occasionally. At import prices this disc is not likely to fly off the shelves, but it is an excellent introduction to the songs of Charles Ives.