Charles Ives did not approach recording as a means of preserving his playing for future generations. It satisfied three practical and rather private functions: so that he could hear his own music played back to him, as a compositional assist to help transcribe variant readings of works in progress, and as a way to demonstrate to performers how he thought his music should sound. Ives did not put very much stock in the success of these recordings, and very few of them constitute "complete" performances in a manner that might have satisfied him. Nevertheless, they are the only recordings Ives made, and as such constitute a priceless legacy within the limited amount of material that exists on record of American classical composers before 1950. Ives was the first American composer to utilize studio recording as a compositional tool, therefore these modest, and often very brief, samples of his playing represent a milestone of which even he was not aware.
New World Records' Ives Plays Ives was initially put out by CRI in 1999, and in its original incarnation proved so successful that CRI was already long out of stock on the title when it closed its doors for good in 2002. New World's reissue of this title does not make many changes to the original package other than to spruce up the typeface, change the front and back cover, and to add a bibliography and selected discography. Otherwise it consists of the same 42 recordings, painstakingly transferred from shellac test pressings, uncoated aluminums, and aluminum-based lacquer discs in 1999, and the same group of essays by James Sinclair, Richard Warren, Vivian Perlis, and others that appeared the first time around.
Most of Ives' recordings center around the Four Transcriptions from Emerson, Ives' final piano work, and one he still considered unfinished in the 1930s when making these recordings. Along the way, Ives departed from the transcriptions in order to work with bits and pieces of his piano Studies, parts of the Concord Sonata, and a number of improvised or semi-improvised pieces, including an improvisation on a movement from within the First Symphony that he had previously discarded. At his final session of 1943 Ives concentrated more on producing complete recordings, including the whole of Study No. 9, "The Anti-Abolitionist Riots, March No. 6 with "Here's to Good Old Yale," three takes of his final song "They Are There! and finally, a complete "The Alcotts" movement of the Concord Sonata. This last selection is Ives' best-known recording and is perceived as his most characteristic in some circles. However, if there is any characteristic that dominates the proceedings as a whole it is Ives' thundering, highly dissonant, and exploratory pianism, frequently peppered with moans, epithets, and cursing. It is a little like going through Ives' hastily scribbled manuscript sketches, only on record rather than on paper. The sound quality is variable, understandable given the distinctly differing situations in which Ives recorded, ranging from the Abbey Road studio in London to a primitive home recording setup with "Speak-O-Phone" discs. However, many of these recordings have surprising fidelity, and this 1999 restoration remains a huge improvement over the LP version of Ives Plays Ives that appeared in the early '70s on CBS.
The return of Ives Plays Ives is certainly welcome, and this new New World Records edition is nicely done. Once obtained, it is unlikely that it is a recording one will want to listen to very often, but hopefully this new incarnation of Ives Plays Ives will at least make its way into the hands of everyone who desires to own one.