St Olaf's Choir and Chamber Ensemble - Ives - MusicWeb International

The major work on this disc, "The Celestial Country," is one of Ives' earliest multi-movement compositions. It dates from approximately the same period as his First Symphony and First String Quartet. However, unlike the First Symphony and First String Quartet, this sacred cantata received its first performance while Ives was still a young man, not long after he had composed it.

The work was premiered on April 19, 1902 at the Central Presbyterian Church in New York City, where Ives served as church organist. Ironically, not long after premiering the work, Ives resigned his post as organist and began his long period of artistic isolation and maturation. I think that the experience convinced Ives that he couldn't compose music that would satisfy social expectations and also satisfy his own artistic impulses. Later, he would scrawl the words "Damned rot and worse!" across a favourably written newspaper review of the performance.

Unlike the works of Ives' maturity, "The Celestial Country" is a fairly conventional composition that was heavily indebted to other composers of the period, including Ives' music professor at Yale, Horatio Parker. In fact, Ives mistakenly believed that he was setting the same verse that Parker used in his cantata "Hora novissima." In reality, the words from "The Celestial Country" are derived from English churchman Henry Alford's hymn "Forward! Be Our Watchword." As Ives' biographer Jan Swafford notes, "The treacly religiosity of Alford's title is an indication of the [musical composition's] style. He exhorts the Pilgrim to Climb the Path Ever Forward and Faint Not in His Journey Toward the Light, ‘thither, onward, thither / In the spirit's might,' and so on" (CEI: A Life With Music, p. 159). Despite the work's shortcomings, it is worth exploring for a more complete understanding of Ives' development as a composer.

Other than the Linn recording at hand, I am aware of three other recordings of this work. None of these are currently in print. Harold Farberman and the LSO with the Schutz Choir of London made the first recording of "The Celestial Country." Most recently it was available on a Citadel compact disc (Citadel CTD 88126). Gregg Smith conducted the Gregg Smith Singers and the Columbia Chamber Ensemble in the second recording of the work. This was included in the "Charles Ives: 100th Anniversary" box set issued by Columbia in 1974 (Columbia Masterworks M4 32504). It has never been issued on CD. Stephen Cleobury conducted the New London Orchestra and BBC Singers on a Collins Classics CD (1479).

How do Anton Armstrong and the St. Olaf Choir and Chamber Ensemble compare? They turn in a good, serviceable performance of "The Celestial Country." The choral singing is very polished and blended. In fact, the most compelling aspects of the recording are the sections featuring the chorus a capella (the fifth and eighth sections). However, I should note that the general tone of the interpretation is dour and churchly, even genteel. The Linn disc certainly lacks the powerful, ecstatic quality of Farberman's performance with the LSO. And the Gregg Smith Singers' performance is even more satisfying. It sounds very Ivesian. So, in terms of musical enjoyment, I would give the Columbia recordings top honors. (Sony should re-issue all of Gregg Smith's recordings of Ives' choral works. Most of these have never made the transition from LP to compact disc.) Compared to Farberman's grand intensity and Smith's rough-hewn vitality, you might even call Armstrong's reading "nice," Ives' euphemism for music that lacks vitality and lifeblood rowdiness. But, as we have seen, Ives was apparently extremely dissatisfied with "The Celestial Country." One senses that he was disgusted with the work because he thought the music too genteel, quaint, and conventional. In short, after hearing it, Ives thought that "The Celestial Country" itself was too "nice." Given this perspective, one could argue that the Armstrong recording is the most historically-informed performance of "The Celestial Country" ever committed to disc-even if it's not the most compelling one.

The other recordings on the disc, which conductor Anton Armstrong compiled under the title "Silence Unaccompanied," are a mixture of short choral works, chamber ensemble works, and songs. To my ears, the most effective performances are their choral renditions of Ives' Christmas "Carol" and "Mists." In both of these works, the choir sounds beautifully ethereal and idiomatic. The songs featuring mezzo-soprano Martha Hart are good, but in most cases she cannot erase memories of another mezzo with an uncanny knack for Ives' songs, Jan DeGaetani. However, Hart is most effective on the challenging "Sunrise," for violin, piano and voice. This is a compelling performance of one of Ives' last compositions. The short works for chamber ensemble are good, but they lack the razor-sharpness of the best performances. In summary, the shorter works are variable. Some are excellent; others are merely good. Regardless, most listeners will track down this disc for the sacred cantata "The Celestial Country"-especially since this is the only recording that is currently available.

MusicWeb International
01 August 2004