Charles Ives: Great American Pioneer? Of course. Ives discovered new tonalities and modalities years before any other composer. Great American Innovator? Definitely. Ives forged many of the techniques of twentieth century composition decades before any other composer. Great American Composer? That's debatable. In most recordings, Ives winds up sounding either like a European composer gone native or native composer gone mad. And most include recordings by American artists whose performances are either too rooted in tradition like Leonard Slatkin or too intent on radicalism like Leonard Bernstein.
Not in these performances of 13 songs by soprano Marni Nixon with pianist John McCabe recorded in 1967 and 24 brief chamber orchestra pieces with Ingo Metzmacher leading the Ensemble Modern recorded in 1991: here Ives sounds like nothing and nobody save his own eccentric self. Nixon with her pure, expressive soprano and McCabe with his forthright technique create performances of hair-raising intensity. Try General William Booth Enters into Heaven and if its violent juxtapositions of military brutality and religious sublimity don't do it for you, you might pass on the songs.
But you might still want to try Ives' pieces for chamber orchestra. Metzmacher is truly under the skin of this music. He gets the twisted jazz of The See'r, the polytonal marches of Calcium Night Light, and weirdly glowing impressionism of Mists. And the Ensemble Modern responds to the music with performances of tremendous enthusiasm and terrific virtuosity. Though Ives' demands on the performers remain formidable even after almost a century, the German musicians surmount them with the kind of efficient professionalism that lets the profound strangeness of Ives music shine through. Though not for everyone, those who respond to Ives' unique approach to composition may want to hear this disc. Both EMI's digital recording of the orchestral pieces and Pye's stereo recording of the songs were exemplarily for their times and technology, and this 2008 EMI remastering brings both recordings vividly to life.