Ives: The Celestial Country; Silence Unaccompanied

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WORKS: The Celestial Country; Silence Unaccompanied
PERFORMER: Martha Hart (mezzo-soprano), Dan Dressen (tenor), Michael Jorgensen (baritone), John Ferguson (organ); St Olaf Choir & Chamber Ensemble/ Anton Armstrong
Of all Charles Ives’s compositions, The Celestial Country comes closest to sounding like the work of a true primitive artist, a Grandma Moses of music. In this sacred cantata, first performed in 1902 at the Manhattan church where Ives was organist, the conventional language of hymn tunes and salon music is sometimes heard unalloyed, sometimes subverted by unexpected harmonies or rhythms, and occasionally, in some weirdly dissonant instrumental interludes, abandoned altogether. The overall effect is at once amusing and surprisingly moving. This recording of the piece – the only one currently available – by a long-established Minnesota choir has tenor and baritone soloists, neither outstanding, but an extended quartet and double quartet are allocated to the full choir. The choral sound is rich and well-blended, but lacks edge in the all-enveloping church acoustic.


The rest of the disc is devoted to a meditative cycle assembled by Malcolm Bruno, chiefly from songs of various periods. Some, including Ives’s touching last work, ‘Sunrise’, with obbligato violin, are performed as written; others are sung chorally. The cycle makes for pleasant listening, but enjoyment is tempered by Martha Hart’s unvarying slow vibrato, and unease over how much of the music is as Ives intended it. Anthony Burton