Charles Ives had two main goals for his music. One was to pull away from the comfortable language of Romanticism, and though he never developed a codified system, as Arnold Schoenberg did (they were exact contemporaries, born in 1874), he filled his scores with free dissonance, and sometimes juxtaposed competing themes in different keys. The second was to create an identifiably American style, a generation before Aaron Copland embraced the same notion. To that end, he drew on America’s deep well of hymns and folk songs, quoting them nostalgically one moment and satirically the next. A crusty New Englander, he could celebrate history without being sentimental about it.
It was clear to Ives early on that neither musicians nor listeners were interested in these experiments, so he turned his talents to the insurance business – in which he made a fortune – and continued to compose in his spare time. By the late 1930s, the music world began to catch up with his quirky vision, but it was a long time before musicians who were not Ives specialists understood how his works should be played. Too often, Ives performances had a grim earnestness that was wholly at odds with Ives’ tendency to poke fun at most things.
No more. When Stefan Jackiw and Jeremy Denk played the composer’s four Sonatas for Violin and Piano at Bowdoin College on Wednesday evening, they moved through the works with all the richness of tone and fluidity of phrasing you would expect from, say, a Brahms recital, but without sacrificing the provocateur’s edge that gives Ives’ music its distinctive character.
Jackiw, a young powerhouse violinist, and Denk, one of the most thoughtful pianists performing now – in some ways, the Alfred Brendel of his generation – both grew up with Ives as part of their musical cosmos, so the music’s technical and conceptual difficulties are nothing to them. They seemed not to challenge the Bowdoin audience, either. Studzinski Recital Hall was nearly full, and while many listeners would probably have come no matter what Jackiw and Denk played (the concert was free, but tickets were required), when Denk asked if there were Ives enthusiasts among them, he got a respectable response.
The duo played the four works in reverse numerical order. It would not be quite accurate to say reverse chronology: the First Sonata was completed in 1914 and revised in 1926; the Second, Third and Fourth were composed concurrently, starting in 1914, with the Fourth completed first, in 1916 and the others a year later. Denk, who offered an analytical introduction to each work, said that their sequence moved from the easiest to the most difficult.
In truth, the materials from which they are made are similar. In the Fourth Sonata, “Children’s Day at the Camp Meeting,” Ives uses hymn tunes (particularly “Yes, Jesus Loves You” and “Shall We Gather at the River”), bits of marches, and scampering figures to convey his youthful memories of revival meetings. Hymn variations drive the Third Sonata, too, often with a jazz tinge replacing the childlike playfulness that drives the Fourth. You hear more hymns, and get another look at a revival meeting, in the Second Sonata – but the work’s central movement, “In the Barn,” includes wobbly, off-kilter violin passages that describe a drunken revel. And in the First Sonata, Ives used Civil War songs to paint a nostalgic scene in which old soldiers revisit their memories of a war that ended less than a decade before Ives was born.
There was much to admire in the qualities Denk and Jackiw each brought to these pieces. Denk’s work was, as always, animated, sharp-edged and texturally transparent, the work of a pianist who never plays a phrase without a reason for shaping it a specific way. Jackiw’s playing matches those qualities, and like Denk, he can turn on a dime, moving from a beautifully burnished tone to a sound with a sharper, snappier edge, capturing Ives’ mercurial mood shifts in a thoroughly visceral way.
Most striking, though, was the tightness of the interplay between them, particularly in Ives’ fast, texturally dense movements. Anyone can make difficult music sound difficult. Jackiw and Denk put the difficulties in the background and made these tough scores flow like jazz improvisations.