Naxos' Charles Ives: Variations on 'America' features "The President's Own" United States Marine Band under the direction of its regular leader, Colonel Timothy W. Foley, in a program containing a mixture of arrangements from Ives works not originally for band and fresh editions of several that are. The dinky community and college bands that Ives wrote for in the 1890s aren't the U.S. Marine Band, and that has required at least some degree of adaptation for everything on the disc, yet the unanimity of sound gives the whole collection a wonderful sense of fullness and makes for very satisfying listening. Keith Brion's clever realization of Ives' very early Variations on "Jerusalem the Golden" alternates Ives' original played on the small bore instruments common to the nineteenth century and the U.S. Marine Band proper, so one can hear the difference. This work has never been recorded before; neither has Runaway Horse on Main Street (1905), which in the past has been hindered by its incomplete state; editor James Sinclair has found a solution, and the result is, as the title would suggest, suitably uproarious. Charles Ives: Variations on 'America' also includes for the first time a complete recording of Jonathan Elkus' Old Home Days Suite, a compilation of Elkus' arrangements of Ives that has gained some traction on the band concert circuit, but it has only been recorded before in part.
The overall program of 21 pieces is adroitly divided into several sections related thematically: "Prologue," "Battle Cries of Freedom," Town and Gown" (consisting of pieces from Ives' college years), "Band Stuff," "Horseplay" (consisting of Ivesian take-offs and burlesques), and Epilogue, featuring Elkus' arrangement of "The Alcotts" from the Concord Sonata. Such programming reflects Ives' own preferences late in life toward collecting songs and short orchestral pieces into groups united by a common theme. Elkus' notes provide detail on the origin of each piece and how it was handled -- that is very, very useful information for getting in touch with the music. Even established Ivesians will be amazed to hear Ives' music played with such crack proficiency as the U.S. Marine Band has to offer, though it is easy to imagine that some might carp that this represents a homogenization of Ives' relentlessly challenging and untidy output. Nevertheless, many American classical music buffs have heard his symphonies and other large-scale works only to come away with the question "what's so great about Charles Ives?" Charles Ives: Variations on 'America' truly makes the case for him; it is easily accessible and, as a survey of Ives' relationship to the nineteenth century American band tradition, is practically definitive. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine how Naxos' Charles Ives: Variations on 'America' could be better than it is; it is awesome.