This is a wonderful CD with powerful, committed performances of works by some of the most forward thinking composers this country has ever produced. And while there is alot of competition for the Ives Orchestral sets on the disc, the Ruggles and Crawford Seeger are relative rarities and make this a disc to treasure.
The ives Orchestral Sets lead off the disc, and they are great performances. Of the two, the First Set is the more familiar. St. Gaudens is a lovely study in atmospherics, in Ives typical blend of Imressionism, quotation, polytonatlity and shimmeringly atonal chords. Putnam's Camp is one of Ives' cacaphonous marches, littered with quotes from patriotic songs and the effects of several bands playing at once. This piece in particular seems almost a study for the stunning 2nd movement of the 4th symphony. The Set concluded with the justly celebrated Housatonic at Stockbridge. Slowly, out of the dense polyphony of the opening, a hymn tune gradually emerges in a blazing glory. Ives proves a master of impressionistic sound painting, but you never confuse him with his French counterparts...or even those like Griffeths or Delius, who are influenced by the French so highly. Ives take Impressionist gestures and makes them his own.
The Second Set is less well known, but equally striking. The Elegy to our Forefathers is dominated by beautiful and unusual instrumental timbres, including the harpsichord. It is a lovely, well shaped work. The Rockstrewn Hills is another of Ives' Camp Meeting pieces. Similar in ways to General Putnam, but this time using American Revival Hymns, the work is powerful and individual. The work finishes with Hanover Squart North, which features a significant choral part in the misdst of Ives' typical murky textures. The work undulates through these mists before it finally shines forth in a glorious brass band climax before it recedes again into murk.
Carl Ruggles has been severly neglected by the CD era. In the early 80s, Michael Tilson Thomas put out a double LP containing all of the work of this cranky yet brilliant composer, but this recording has been lost in the rush to CD technology. As a result, there are only a handful of Ruggles pieces to found in the catalogue. Luckily, one is the Sun Treader, which is probably Ruggles greatest piece of music. The work is tightly constructed around a strong repeated timpani stoke, and built of hard lines in uncompromising dissonant counterpoint. Ruggles music is like granite, chiseled and hard, yet strangely moving. The Sun Treader is only 14 minutes long, and yet it packs more in those 14 minutes than many composers pack into entire symphonies.
Men and Mountains is a slightly earlier piece. It shares the same strong, chiseled quality, but the counterpoint is not quite as highly developed. Lilacs in particular is a wonderful movement. Quiet and written for strings alone, this movement builds a tense chorale like texture, that increases in tension without exploding. The effect is stunning.
The Crawford Seeger Andante for Strings is also an undiscovered masterpiece. Crawford Seeger was one of the most radical composers of her generation, embracing the logic and atonality of the 2nd Viennese school during the time most Americans were under the spell of Boulanger and Stravinsky. This small work is a great introduction to this negelcted composer.
The Cleveland Orchestra under Dohnanyi is marevelous in this material, rivalling the Tilson Thomas Set with the BSO. This CD gets a slight edge for me, because of Men and Mountains and the Seeger Andante. It is outstanding.