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Denk and Ives, Partners in Pianism
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By Stuart Isacoff
We Americans prize independence, innovation and in-your-face moxie. No one better exemplifies these qualities than Charles Ives, a rugged New Englander who, in the early years of the 20th century, practically invented the modern life-insurance industry; wrote sassy essays about politics, morality and art; and composed music of stunning originality. When, in 1920, he published his great piano work, the "Concord Sonata," and sent it to reviewers with a note that said "Complimentary: copies are not to be sold," the venerable magazine Musical America commented, "At last a composer who realizes the unsalable quality of his music."
It was indeed a hard sell. This work sounds like no one else's—filled with the composer's trademark collage technique (quoting everything from hymns and patriotic songs to Beethoven's Fifth Symphony); unexpected, thoroughly unique harmonic collisions; and equal doses of biting sarcasm and heart-on-your-sleeve sentimentality. As pianist Jeremy Denk puts it in the liner notes for his new CD, "Jeremy Denk Plays Ives," released last week, this music is "brilliant, inventive, tender, edgy, wild, original, witty, haunting . . . so many adjectives." Reviewers have had similar difficulty in finding adjectives adequate to Mr. Denk's artistry: "intelligence," "lyricism," "attention to detail," "chops" and "breadth of color" are just some of the words they have used. The new recording includes both of Ives's sonatas (the "Concord," with its four movements dedicated to New England literary figures—Emerson, Hawthorne, Thoreau and the Alcotts—is No. 2).
The pianist, who performs Tuesday night at Alice Tully Hall with the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center in a program of folk-influenced works from Europe, has a wide repertoire. Why did he decide to record Ives? "For me, it's his tenderness, the affection, the sense of memory he has," Mr. Denk said recently over a cup of coffee. "He reaches back to his childhood and re-creates moments of magic, capturing an essence of music making that is more important than what happens in a formal concert. There is," he reveals, "a strong Ives-Proust connection for me—it has to do with the time period, and the intense rethinking of what the listening experience is supposed to be."
Listening to music by Ives is like wandering through a memory box filled with old photos, sing-along songbooks, political pamphlets, yellowed poems, the bass drum of a big brass band, remnants of an old watering hole, and perhaps a pair of boxing gloves. "So much music of the time was conservative," Mr. Denk explains. "Think of William Grant Still or Amy Beach. They were mostly writing 'in the style of. . . .' That is, they were busy redecorating the same rooms. Beethoven didn't do that—he tore things apart. Ives created his persona out of Beethoven and Emerson—men who were intensely self-reliant. He takes things that are commonplace—as Beethoven did—and infuses them with a new vision.
"The first movement of the First Sonata, for example, uses a sentimental tune, 'Where Is My Wandering Boy Tonight?' and which gets tangled up in the hymn 'Lebanon.' The result can seem funny, but by the end of the movement you realize that there is a great melancholy and nostalgia there. He experiments all the time, and, just as in experiments in a lab, things sometimes explode. But Ives seems to value even the misfires. And ultimately, we do too."
One wonders if the music presents special pianistic challenges. "He was a pianist, too," Mr. Denk reminds us. "So when he takes honky-tonk style, for example, he pushes its virtuosity to the highest degree. You end up playing syncopated figures against yourself, and have to be able to keep two ideas in your head at once—that's something that is especially Ivesian. And this music is especially dependent on voicing [bringing certain lines to the forefront], because things are multilayered: You must be sure you know what the important melody is, what the appropriate color should be, how to make the beautiful parts truly beautiful."
Most significantly, the pianist says, there are always deep philosophical roots hidden in the score. "There is a moment in Thoreau that is enchanting. A descending five-note figure that had been lingering in our subconscious throughout the piece—actually they are the first notes to appear in the left hand in Emerson—suddenly crystallizes into the Stephen Foster song 'Down in the Cornfield.' Below it, a three-note 'nature' theme rings out as a recurring bass pattern. The joining of these melodies brings to mind a line from "Walden": 'I grew in those seasons like corn in the night. . . .' Ives loved such instances of retrospective unification—moments of epiphany.
"Similarly, in Emerson, he scatters seeds of thoughts at the beginning of the movement—he throws everything at you in the first page—then spends 16 minutes separating the ideas into little episodes. In the end we see them marching away, one by one. He was going after Emerson's idea of finding meaning by implication or metaphor."
Mr. Denk's career includes a musical partnership with violinist Joshua Bell, and numerous solo and concerto appearances. Has focusing on Ives affected his performance of other repertoire? "Actually, it is the other way around. I think my playing of Liszt, Beethoven and Debussy has fed into my understanding of what Ives was after," Mr. Denk replies. "In Ives you always have to be able to turn on a dime from one type of sound to another—because his music lives on the edge of anarchy." Nevertheless, as Jeremy Denk has ably demonstrated, a great interpreter can keep the threat of entropy at bay.
Mr. Isacoff is on the faculty of the Purchase College Conservatory of Music (SUNY), and author of the book "Temperament: How Music Became a Battleground for the Great Minds of Western Civilization" (Knopf/Vintage).