Naxos has instituted a project recording all of Charles Ives' songs within its American Classics series of which this is the first volume. There has been a previous attempt to record them all in one place, the results issued in 1994 on the Albany label. In that instance, just four singers and one accompanist covered the cycle of about 200 songs on four discs, with two songs obviously missing from the canon. The third track on Naxos' Charles Ives: Songs Vol. 1, "Aeschylus and Sophocles," represents one of the tunes Albany left out, presented right up front. This is a coincidence of its presence in the letter order, as this series is alphabetically arranged by title, which makes more sense than the assumed, roughly chronological sequence of the Albany series. Alphabetical arrangement reflects the way these pieces are usually dealt with in Ives' catalogs, and a chronological arrangement doesn't really reflect forward development in Ives' songs, as he dipped into so many older compositions and touched them up, discarding the originals. There is a whole gang of vocalists in this first volume -- 13, to be exact -- not to mention four different piano accompanists, the string quartet called for in "Aeschylus and Sophocles," and the churchy organ called for in "The Collection." This horde of performers is no doubt pulled together to ensure variety in such a long undertaking of accompanied art songs.
"Why do this?" you might wonder. Do we really need all of Ives' songs in a few discs? Actually, there is nothing wrong with that idea; all of them, including very many of the ones Ives described as "weak," are at least interesting, and some, like "The Cage" and "Charlie Rutlage" included here, are considered among the best and most characteristic art songs written by an American composer. On the other end of the equation, some of the songs Ives wrote that are less than successful, and therefore seldom singled out for solo recital discs built up out of his work, are still worth hearing. Take for example "The All-Enduring," a long ballad from 1896 filled with trenchant dissonances in the piano part. Was this a case of Ives feeling his oats in 1896, as plenty of evidence for that exists elsewhere, or rather, did he decide to add these notes later to toughen up the piece a bit?
Is this a perfect collection? No. Is it truly possible that any complete collection of Ives' songs could be? He does state that he preferred several of his songs be performed by untrained voices, but as they belong to the genre of art song, trained singers invariably sing them. Patrick Carfizzi, at least, deserves kudos for thinking out of the box for "Charlie Rutlage," singing in a Texas-style cowboy drawl. Leah Wool's reading of "The Children's Hour" is genuinely lovely, and the idea of casting countertenor Ian Howell in the roles of Ives' now famous "Christmas Carol" and "At Sea" was a novel one. Likewise, Robert Gardner deserves singling out for achieving the plain and disinterested tone Ives wanted for "The Cage" and David Pittsinger's unapologetically sentimental delivery of Ives' strictly romantic heart-song "Because of You." Most of the problems are minor; "Abide for Me" and "Chanson de Florian" are not designed for high voice, tenor Kenneth Tarver has a problem with a tricky pitch in "Canon I," but these things are no big deal. Naxos' collection of Charles Ives' songs is off to a very good start.