By ANTHONY TOMMASINI
CHARLES IVES has a well-deserved reputation as the ultimate maverick
composer and flinty New England character. Still, in the flinty maverick
department, another New England composer, the salty Carl Ruggles, holds his
own. Born in 1876 to a whaling family on Cape Cod, Ruggles pursued music, in
the words of Virgil Thomson, "without qualms about failure, poverty,
disapproval, or what-will-people-say."
If Ruggles is underappreciated today, it's partly his own fault. Completing
compositions went against his grain. He left most scores in sketchy
disarray, published only eight works and spent his last decades more
involved with painting than with music. (He died at 95.)
For all his stubbornness, Ruggles often caved in and turned to pragmatic
musicians to help him put his fragmentary scores into some sort of
performable shape. One he frequently sought for such aid was the pianist
and editor John Kirkpatrick, who was also a devoted colleague of Ives.
An engrossing new recording - "The Uncovered Ruggles" (New World Records
80629-2), featuring the excellent pianist Donald Berman - should contribute
significantly to the understanding of this composer. Mr. Berman, a musician
with a scholarly bent who studied with Kirkpatrick, won critical acclaim for
two earlier recordings, both called "The Unknown Ives" (from Composers
Recordings and New World). They presented premiere recordings of unpublished
works and new critical editions of Ives.
The Ruggles release also offers several first recordings of unpublished
sketches, mostly transcribed or realized by Kirkpatrick, who likened the
process of assembling scores from Ruggles's fragments and sketches to
||pearls." Mr. Berman gives searching and authoritative accounts of
10 solo works. He also accompanies the soprano Susan Narucki in four
restless songs and the violinist Daniel Stepner in a volatile piece titled
Ruggles's musical upbringing was unconventional: he learned as much from
playing violin in theater orchestras during his teens as from studying
composition at Harvard. He emerged with a wildly distinctive voice:
aggressively modern, highly chromatic, densely polyphonic, indebted to the
early atonal aesthetic of Schoenberg.
As the noted English critic Wilfrid Mellers once wrote, Ruggles, in his
craggy music, sought freedom from "tonal bondage ... from conventionalized
repetitions, from anything that sullied the immediacy and purity of
existence - even more remorselessly than Schoenberg."
The piano works offered here, especially the astounding "Evocations: Four
Chants for Piano," mostly evolve in long spans of organic, heaving,
intertwining contrapuntal lines. The pervasively somber mood is sometimes
relieved by a touch of wistfulness or delicacy. Avoiding overt drama, the
music grabs you with its inexorable sweep and mystical fervor. But don't
expect to hear a steady rhythmic tread in "March" or an oom-pah-pah in
The songs are utterly strange yet strangely haunting. It's good that Mr.
Berman included "Exaltation," a melancholic but sweetly tonal hymn. Ruggles
composed it in 1958 in tribute to his beloved wife, Charlotte, who had died
the year before. Charlotte had long asked Ruggles to compose a hymn for her.
Did this rugged New Englander have a secret soft spot?