For him, Ives has it

08.20.10
Jeremy Denk
The Boston Globe

By David Weininger

The pianist Jeremy Denk was one of the first classical musicians to make a substantive art of blogging. His blog, Think Denk, remains the site of some of the most brilliantly off-kilter writing about music, art, and the relation of various food items to both.

His literary skills are also in evidence in the extensive program notes to his new recording of Ives’s two piano sonatas, released last week on iTunes. Denk writes that he is often asked by audience members why he’s drawn to Ives, in whose music they hear little more than discord. To the contrary, he submits, “there is a terrific tenderness emanating from this dissonant, difficult music: a tenderness for experiences of childhood, for the ‘uneducated,’ fervid hymn-singing of camp meetings, for the silliness of ragtime, for the quaint wistful corners of ballads, and on and on.’’

He expands on this theme while discussing a particularly wild passage in the First Sonata, in which Ives unleashes some truly unhinged variations on “Bringing in the Sheaves,’’ a popular hymn tune. “[I]t is true to life: you can almost smell the beer, and the sawdust on the floor. . . . Ives wants to re-create the raw experience of music-making, something unfiltered, and beyond all your piano lessons; though writing fiendishly difficult piano music, he wants you to remember there is something more important than just ‘playing well’; while driving me crazy, he reminds me why I play the piano at all.’’

And the playing is indeed wonderful. Denk’s powerful rendering of the famous “Concord’’ Sonata will bring back happy memories for those who heard him play the piece in 2008 at the Gardner Museum. Almost more impressive, though, is his recording of the rarely played First Sonata, in which Ives’s creativity repeatedly bubbles over into the near-anarchy that puts him so close to the pianist’s heart. The above mentioned variations sound just as rowdy as Denk’s description makes them seem. After all, as the pianist writes, “Ives was always good at depicting the moment when the party goes over the cliff.’’

The CD version of “Jeremy Denk Plays Ives’’ will be released in October. Denk plays Mendelssohn’s Double Concerto for violin, piano, and strings tomorrow at Tanglewood with his frequent recital partner Joshua Bell, and the Boston Symphony Orchestra.