Marcus Creed

Charles Ives: Psalms (Complete Recording)

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This Hänssler Classic disc will certainly not fail to interest Ivesians, as it represents the first complete recording of a cycle of major significance within Charles Ives' work, his Psalm settings, which began with his never-before-recorded setting of Psalm 42 written in 1888 when Ives was 14, and Psalm 90, begun in 1894 but not considered completed until the early '20s. Most of Ives' psalm settings date from the 1890s and contain some of his earliest extant musical experiments; mainly in terms of polytonal combinations -- most famously in the bitonal Psalm 67 -- but also including a section of obvious twelve-tone writing in Psalm 25. These works were recorded by the SWR Vokalensemble Stuttgart under Marcus Creed, one of the finest choruses in Europe in the interpretation of new music and inheritors of the mantle of Clytus Gottwald's legendary Stuttgart Schola Cantorum.

The minuses in this recording are the slightly too-distant sound of the disc, which was recorded both in the studio and at the Staadtkirche Böblingen in Stuttgart; in attempting to match the studio recordings to the sound of those of the Staadtkirche, the engineers went a little overboard in applying the artificial reverb. The performance of Psalm 135 is sloppy, although this is a very difficult piece for a chorus and instrumentalists to coordinate given its off-kilter rhythmic profile. The English texts to the Psalms aren't clear and sometimes sound Germanized, though it is still preferable over the recording of some Psalms by Collins Classics in the 1990s, which featured the BBC Singers with a heavy Anglican sound to the singing. Among its major advantages is the inclusion -- at last -- of Psalm 42, which turns out to be a charming work not at all incongruous to Ives' general worklist and in keeping with his very early output like the song "Slow March." One wonders what kept it off recordings before, as the manuscript -- copied by Ives' father George -- is one of those few Ives' source scores that is completely clear.

So, the wait for an ideal single disc of Ives' 10 psalm settings -- he made two more, but there is no surviving score material on those -- continues. However, Hänssler's Charles Ives: Psalms -- Complete Recording will certainly suffice in the interim.

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