Scott Mortensen writes:
I vividly remember the first time I ever heard the music of Charles Ives. The piece was the raucous “Putnam’s Camp” movement from Three Places in New England. I’d never heard anything so immediate and vital and joyous; it made me laugh out loud with pleasure. My current favorite recording of this work is by conductor James Sinclair and the Orchestra New England, a disc that also includes Ives’ Four Ragtime Dances, the Set for Theatre Orchestra, and other short orchestral works. If you’ve never heard Ives’ music before, this is the perfect place to begin. To my ears, Ives’ Fourth Symphony is one of the great masterworks of the twentieth century. Ives’ Fourth is one of conductor Michael Tilson Thomas’ specialties, and no one has surpassed his recording, which is coupled with Symphony No. 1. Tilson Thomas’ mastery of Ives’ music is also clear on his recording of the Holidays Symphony, an essential disc that also includes tremendous readings of “Central Park in the Dark” and “The Unanswered Question,” which is probably Ives’ best known composition.
Along with orchestral music, Ives composed a large body of songs and chamber works. For a fascinating selection of Ives’ songs, check out recital by mezzo-soprano Jan DeGaetani and pianist Gilbert Kalish. DeGaetani has a completely idiomatic command of Ives’ unique musical language, and the disc demonstrates the enormous stylistic range of his songs.
Lastly, no survey of Ives’ essential music is complete without his Second Piano Sonata, subtitled “Concord, Mass., 1840-60.” Each movement of the sonata is a musical portrait of a New England Transcendentalist writer who inspired Ives: Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, the Alcott family and Henry David Thoreau, and. Pianist Marc-André Hamelin has made two recordings of the “Concord.” They are very different, but each is stunning in its own way. For the more Olympian, thrusting view, seek out his first recording on New World; for a more inward, depths-plumbing perspective, try Hamelin’s recent recording on Hyperion.
Scott Mortensen is an avid fan of the music of Charles Ives, and has created the Internet’s most comprehensive web site on the composer.