The Complete Works of Carl Ruggles (reissue)


At long last the 1980 CBS recording of The Complete Music of Carl Ruggles (1876-1971) has been reissued by Other Minds records (OM 1021/2-2).  I have owned the vinyl two disc set for many years having come across a review of it in a list of suggested recordings of American classical music in, of all places, The Whole Earth Catalog.  And it is definitely a vital part of any serious collection of American classical music.  Ruggles was one of a group collectively labeled, “The American Five”, a title intended to compare the group with the French “Le Six”, the “Russian Five” or the often cited “Three B’s” (Bach, Beethoven, Brahms).  The American group consists of Charles Ives, Henry Cowell, Wallingford Riegger, Carl Ruggles and John J. Becker who strove to define an American sound not beholden to the European models which had dominated the previous century.  Ruggles’ students included James Tenney and Merton Brown.

This album is a recording of Ruggles’ complete published works.  A recent recording of newly unearthed ephemera was recently released but the present record is everything that Ruggles acknowledged and approved.  It is a meager output for a man who lived to the age of 95 similar to the output of the equally important Edgard Varese whose complete works also fit on two vinyl records and the music is just as finely crafted.  The music here is likely not as familiar even to those who know the work of Ives and Cowell.  But make no mistake this is powerful and unique music that deserves more than just a casual listen.

It is thanks to the efforts of Michael Tilson Thomas, who first heard his teacher Ingolf Dahl conduct Ruggles’ three movement symphony, ‘Men and Mountains’ that inspired him to add Ruggles’ work to his repertoire.  But the connections do not stop there.  Thomas and producer Syrl Silberman of WGBH went to visit Ruggles in a rest home and introduced themselves by putting headphones on the composer and playing an air check of Thomas’ performance of Ruggles’ best known work, ‘Sun Treader’.  Thomas’  wonderful essay about that auspicious encounter is included in Wayne Smith’s beautifully designed booklet.  Also included are the original liner notes with Thomas’ essay, notes and analysis by pianist and Ives scholar John Kirkpatrick and an additional essay by Lou Harrison reprinted as well.  There is also an introduction written by Other Minds Associate Director Adam Fong, himself a student of James Tenney, which puts Ruggles in a wider historical perspective.

Executive producers Charles Amirkhanian and Adam Fong acquired permission from Sony Music to digitize the original master tapes working with a grant from the Aaron Copland Fund to bring this essential recording into the digital age.  And the performances by the acclaimed new music advocate Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra (MTT was then its musical director), a brass ensemble led by Gerard Schwarz and none other than John Kirkpatrick on piano in the Four Evocations.  Michael Tilson Thomas accompanies soprano Judith Blegen in the little song, ‘Toys’ from 1919 which Ruggles wrote for his son.  Speculum Musicae accompany mezzo-soprano Beverly Morgan in ‘Vox Clamans in Deserto’ from 1923.  Trumpeter/conductor Gerard Schwarz leads a brass ensemble in the original 1921 version of ‘Angels’ for six trumpets as well as its 1940 revision for trumpets and trombones.  Even American choral music experts the Gregg Smith Singers come in to perform Ruggles’ last completed composition, ‘Exaltation’ from 1958, composed in memory of his late wife Charlotte.

The Buffalo Philharmonic with its long history of performing contemporary music under Lukas Foss and Michael Tilson Thomas does a wonderful job of handling the six orchestral works.  Best known of these is the tone poem ‘Sun Treader’ which Thomas had recorded earlier with the Boston Symphony in about 1970.  ‘Men’ from 1921, the three movement symphony ‘Men and Mountains’ from 1924, the orchestral version of the four ‘Evocations’ and the 1947 ‘Organum’ also receive very effective readings.  Michael Tilson Thomas is the conductor for all and he clearly knows and loves this music.

The sound is great and the performances are truly definitive coming from artists with varying levels of connection to the composer and  all clearly with a passion for this music.

In fact I can find only a handful of other recordings of Ruggles’ music.  Most are out of print and/or dated in sonic reproduction.  A notable exception is New World Records’, ‘The Uncovered Ruggles’, posthumous reconstructions done by John Kirkpatrick and performed and produced by Kirkpatrick student Donald Berman actually makes a nice companion to the release at hand here for the Ruggles fanatic. (I know they’re out there.)  And there are digital downloads of some out of print recordings as well.

So, as in their previous releases, OM records continues its traversal of sometimes difficult but always relevant music.  So order your copy today through Other Minds, Naxos Distribution or through Amazon.com.  You might be challenged but you won’t be disappointed.  This is a great recording.

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