The Charles Ives Songs Series 2: Theo Bleckmann and Kneebody / Naxos, Vol. 1
Fortunate for the recently completed cycle of songs by Charles Ives on Naxos' Charles Ives: Songs, Vol. 1 are Theo Bleckmann's re-imaginings of 12 of Ives' better known vocal compositions, Twelve Songs by Charles Ives. These two releases provide stark contrast between traditional and progressive performances of not only Ives, but of "art songs" in general. They also illuminate the contrast between the art and the artist, that creative conflict beginning with Paganini and Liszt and continuing through to today.
Charles Ives (1874-1954) might appropriately be considered the American Schubert. Art songs made up a great part of each composers' output. Ives published his songs himself to ensure their availability to the public for both performance and listening pleasure. Ives drew his muse from the hymns he played in church, the folk tunes he heard locally and the Western European art songs he studied in university. He made all these styles his own, often banging them together as he did in his symphonies. These songs are a yellowing snapshot of early 20th century Protestant New England, a glimpse of the Americana of that era.
Theo Bleckman and Kneebody
Twelve Songs by Charles Ives
Winter and Winter
There is though no yellowing snapshot of old music on Theo Bleckmann's Twelve Songs by Charles Ives. Performed with the West Coast ensemble Kneebody, Bleckmann capably rearranges Ives in such a way to provide a proper introduction to this American composing hero. Playing it relatively straight in the beginning with the superb "Songs My Mother Taught Me," Bleckmann captures the sweetness of Ives.
The song is given an interesting baseline of media noise (almost inaudible short-wave radio transmissions) over which it is performed. Kneebody introduces the piece in lullaby fashion, transforming it into a piano/voice art song and finally ending in a percussively insistent way. The effect is as intoxicating as any of Bleckmann's previous releases.
"At The River" is Ives recasting of an old hymn that appears on both presently considered discs. This is the most recognizable song on either disc. Bleckmann introduces the song with his amazing vocal control and uncovers all of the beauty within. This is followed by an industrial electronic treatment of "The Cage," with Bleckmann doubling the melody with tenor saxophonist Ben Wendel. Craggy and dissonant, "The Cage" is one of the most progressive treatments of Ives' songs. "Serenity" is presented as a funeral dirge, slow and plodding with deliberate drums and reeds.
Easily the centerpiece of the recording is the stunning, "In The Morning," where Bleckmann is in his best voice accompanied with simple drumming, electric bass and keyboards. Bleckmann's impressive range is expressed fully in this hymn, an Ives favorite. Kneebody provides an ethereal backdrop to Bleckmann's other-worldly singing. Twelve Songs by Charles Ives goes a long way in validating what we already knew of Bleckmann's talent and what we should appreciate of Ives' compositional genius.
Charles Ives: Songs, Vol. 1
Continuing with the photographic metaphor, if it was possible to hear images, Theo Bleckmann's Ives would be in digital color and the fine Naxos series would be in analogue black and white. This is no statement to the aesthetic nature of the presentation, rather their cultural ones.
There is as much Bleckmann as Ives on Twelve Songs by Charles Ives while what is present on the Naxos series is closer to what the composer may have envisioned (though it's as certain as can be that Ives would have been delighted with Bleckmann's homage). This type of song is an acquired taste, one that must be challenged. But the effort is fully rewarded with experience.
Volume 1 of Naxos Songs has several gems, beginning with the arithmetic ejaculation "1, 2, 3." Clocking in at a mere 34 seconds, "1, 2, 3" is spit out in a spasm by bass-baritone Patrick Carfizzi. "Abide With Me" is an early hymn by Ives, sung operatically by soprano Sara Jakubiak and supported by pianist Eric Trudel, who shoulders the majority of the piano duties on the disc. "Afterglow" captures the dissonant anxiety and is in stark contrast to the consonant character of "Abide With Me." "At the River" is plaintively sung by Sara Jakubiak, Ives' reharmonization predicting pianist Thelonious Monk by 25 years.
"The Cage," which appears on both discs, is considerably toned down here compared to Bleckmann's high wire treatment, though not by much. Pianist J.J. Penna bangs like Cecil Taylor while baritone Robert Gardner makes short work of the short song. "A Christmas Carol" is readily recognizable, well rendered by countertenor Ian Howell and played in the great Protestant American manner by pianist Douglas Dickson. This first installment of Charles Ives' songs is a sure treat, tuneful and difficult, like its composer.