Charles Ives: A Radical In A Suit and Tie

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Charles Ives: A Radical in a Suit and Tie is certainly a great title for a CD and él, under the aegis of English reissue label Cherry Red, has pressed it into service for a reissue of three of the earliest recordings of Charles Ives' pieces, all now regarded as masterworks. It includes first recordings of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Symphony No. 3, the Orchestral Set No. 1, "Three Places in New England," and Ives' First Piano Sonata. Él even carefully manages to lift a design element from the front cover of the old ARS LP issue of Three Places, making for a striking and attractive front cover. All of this sounds a lot better than the actual disc is. While the recordings of the orchestral music here were certainly firsts, they were considered poor even when first issued in the early '50s, and digital processing does not help very much. The 1950 Richard Bales recording of the Symphony No. 3, originally issued on a rare private LP by radio station WCFM in Washington, D.C., has the virtue of marginally better sound than the ARS of Three Places, featuring Walter Hendl and musicians from the Vienna Symphony, which is atrocious as a recording and performance. When Howard Hanson's pristine recordings with the Eastman-Rochester of both these works appeared on Mercury Living Presence in 1958, both of these items were rendered instantly obsolete.

However, William Masselos' 1950 recording of Lou Harrison's edition of Ives' First Piano Sonata, originally made for Columbia, is a different matter. It is generally considered a primary recorded text for this work, and Masselos' interpretation of this sonata was sanctioned by Ives himself. It has taken a long time for this recording to make it to CD; it was better traveled as an Odyssey reissue LP than in its original, 1953 release. The Odyssey LP was likely used for this reissue, and él's digital transfer -- which isn't bad, by the way -- demonstrates that Columbia's 1950 master tape had already suffered some damage by the time the Odyssey LP appeared in 1967. God knows if the master tape is even playable in 2008; to combine this recording of the First Sonata onto CD with John Kirkpatrick's 1945 recording of the "Concord" Sonata was a project CRI was involved in when it went under in 2002.

Charles Ives: A Radical in a Suit and Tie is aimed at younger, rock-oriented audiences; among the names cited on the back cover teaser are Brian Wilson and Van Dyke Parks. Certainly, a relevant comparison, but the antiquated nature of the recordings do not make the best case for Ives, especially to listeners new to his work, and preferable alternatives are plentiful. Expert Ivesian ears, though, will be grateful for the Masselos and some even might take interest in the Bales recording owing to its great rarity.

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