Jeremy Denk and Stefan Jackiw’s Lessons in Ives’s Nostalgic Sonatas

11.22.15
Jeremy Denk, Stefan Jackiw
The New York Times

A concert offering all four of Charles Ives’s craggy violin sonatas might seem at first more a music history lesson than an engaging program. If not quite rarities, these fiercely original works are pretty close.

Yet on Saturday night, the tirelessly inquisitive pianist Jeremy Denk, an Ives champion, and the brilliant young violinist Stefan Jackiw gave arresting accounts of these four astonishing sonatas at the 92nd Street Y. The event was a model of how performers can both inform and entertain an audience with a challenging program.

Mr. Denk began with some engaging comments about Ives (1874-1954), whose music was largely ignored during his lifetime. This American maverick had an unabashedly modernist side, writing works abounding in tone clusters, polytonality and clashing layers of harmony and melody. Yet, Mr. Denk added, Ives was also a “desperately nostalgic composer” who tried to reconstruct childhood memories in his works. His music is run through with the church hymns, patriotic tunes and marches he heard while learning music from his father, a small town Connecticut bandmaster. These melodies, which become thematic elements of his pieces, would have been familiar to audiences in Ives’s day.

Mr. Denk and Mr. Jackiw began with the Sonata No. 4 and worked backward, though the pieces seem to have been composed more or less simultaneously over 15 years or so, starting around 1902. The 11-minute Fourth Sonata is subtitled “Children’s Day at the Camp Meeting,” and the lively first movement certainly evokes boisterous, youthful activity. At one point, as Mr. Denk said, someone practicing the organ intrudes. The second movement is a misty nocturnal portrait, until a skittish episode when the kids start throwing rocks into a pond. The final movement Mr. Denk intriguingly likened to “Miles Davis not knowing what tune he is going to play.”

The flinty Ives described his Sonata No. 3, the longest (at 30 minutes), as a “nice piece for the nice ladies.” He seems to have meant that the work is less radical, more expansive. But the music still has discombobulating elements, especially the impetuous middle movement, which is like a mash-up of rags and dances.

Mr. Denk’s playing exuded affinity for Ives and vivid imagination. Mr. Jackiw, deftly balancing fervor and elegance, beautiful tone and earthy colorings, proved a comparably inspired Ivesian on this exciting night. 

Read the rest of the review here