Hot on the heels of a widely admired recording of Barber songs, Gerald Finley and Julius Drake bring us their second disc of songs by Charles Ives and it finds them in similarly fine form. Ives' songs cover a wide range of musical styles and registers, capturing the composer in candid, unbuttoned guise as well in experimental mode. Finley and Drake react keenly to the demands made upon them: the modest and personal songs are treated with a disarming directness; they resist the temptation to wallow in some of the more sentimental writing and are fully up to the challenge of the bigger numbers.
The poetic sources range from modest, highly personal verses by Ives himself (including 'Slow march', an elegy for the family cat, probably his earliest song) through to Goethe in German ('Ilmenau'). Ives' familiarity with German Lieder is unmistakable throughout: 'Songs my mother taught me' and 'Down East', for example, reminded me of Wolf (particularly the floating, hazy piano counterpoint introduced around two minutes into the latter); 'Omens and Oracles' rises to an ecstatic, almost Lisztian climax. While 'Mists' has an impressionistic accompaniment that Debussy would be proud of, the boisterousness of 'Circus Band' and the cock-sure patriotism of 'They are there!' seem to have a tinge of Mahlerian irony.
Songs like 'Watchman' and 'The see'r' show Ives pushing into more daring harmonic territory while 'Romanzo di Central Park', which gives the disc its name, is a setting of a poem by Leigh Hunt that has just one word per line (here, as in 'They are there!', Finley and Drake are joined by violinist Magnus Johnston). Other songs have a simplicity and straightforwardness of expression that's all Ives' own: listen for example to 'The South wind' or 'My native land'. These and the settings of texts by Ives and his wife are glimpses into the composer's domestic life that no other works afford us.
Although there's a broad range of styles on show here the composer rarely does what we expect of him. The seemingly straightforward songs never quite develop as one might predict and even the nightingale evoked in 'Evening' has an air of capricious mischief. Finley and Drake adjust to the different interpretative demands made upon them with consummate artistry so in just the first four songs we have Finley as Ives himself reminiscing suavely about his favourite old tunes in 'On the counter', as a young boy singing of his crush for the 'lady all in pink' against Drake's 'Circus band', as the doting father in 'Two little flowers' and as the Wanderer of German Romanticism in 'Ilmenau'. Vocally, the baritone is in splendid form throughout, his legato is exquisite in 'Slow march', his top notes ringing in 'Omens and oracles', and his rallying cry in 'They are there!' rousing.
What makes this disc so enjoyable, though, is not only the exemplary performances but the fact that these songs simply contain so much wonderful music. Ives' melodic gift is not always to the fore in his orchestral works but in these intimate miniatures it sounds like he's simply enjoying himself, composing one delightful melody after another. Fans of Gerald Finley needn't hesitate and for anyone not familiar with Ives' songs, I can't recommend this disc highly enough as an introduction.
By Hugo Shirley