Jackiw and Denk open the door to America’s past with Charles Ives’ violin sonatas

January 27, 2018 at 2:14 pm

By Aaron Keebaugh

Stefan Jackiw and Jeremy Denk performed Charles Ives' complete violin sonatas Friday night at Jordan Hall. Photo: Robert Torres

Stefan Jackiw and Jeremy Denk performed Charles Ives’ complete violin sonatas Friday night at Jordan Hall. Photo: Robert Torres

Charles Ives remains a composer whose music is widely discussed but still too infrequently performed. Recent books, such as Kyle Gann’s Charles Ives’ Concord: Essays After a Sonata, continue to shed light onto one of America’s most innovative and iconoclastic musical figures. Yet no amount of biographical or analytical study will suffice if the music is largely stashed away on library shelves.

Thankfully, violinist Stefan Jackiw and pianist Jeremy Denk have teamed up to heap new attention on some of Ives’ most moving and introspective works—his four sonatas for violin and piano. 

Heard in their Celebrity Series recital at Jordan Hall Friday night, their performances of the complete works revealed a composer who longed for a simpler America through a musical language that blazed new paths for quotation and dissonance. Played in reverse order Friday night, the four sonatas ranged from simple, almost child-like diversions to complex musical webs that layered strains of hymns, fiddle tunes, and marches upon one another in clamorous, quilt-like musical textures. 

In the hands of Jackiw and Denk, the bold sections of the four pieces bristled with a down-home, bucolic verve. The second movement of the Violin Sonata No. 2 is aptly titled “In the Barn,” and Jackiw dug into the music with zeal. One passage even humorously ground out of tune. Likewise, the central movement of the Third Violin Sonata blazed with rhythm as Denk’s playing kept the ragtime style bouncing in a spinning groove that seemed to look ahead to the music of James P. Johnson.  

The most “Ivesian” work of these pieces is the first Violin Sonata, where quotations of Civil War-era tunes clash against burly chords and wayward musical lines. The second movement recalls the memories of Civil War veterans through two songs, “Old Oaken Bucket” and the march “Tramp! Tramp! Tramp!” There, Jackiw rendered the music with dusky tone, and the lines shimmered with a haunting glow. Denk, playing with deep, pearly tone, wrapped him in sensitive accompaniment.

Indeed, those Proustian moments offer some of the most beautiful passages in these sonatas. The soft phrases in the Fourth Violin Sonata, “Children’s Day at the Camp Meeting,” were shaped in soft colors, Jackiw and Denk approaching the music as if it were by Debussy. Both musicians found a singing arc in the quotation of  “Shall We Gather at the River” in the final movement. 

Ives also reversed traditional formal technique. Instead of stating a theme and then developing it, he began works in the middle of a variation, and the themes emerge at the end of a movement like an epiphany. The sense of reveal was most palpable in Jackiw and Denk’s performance of the finale of the Third Violin Sonata. Strains of “I Need Thee Every Hour” bubbled to the top of the texture before the music darted off in bold directions. When Jackiw and Denk unveiled the tune at movement’s end, it sounded with bright intensity. 

Similarly, the outer movements of the First Violin Sonata began in darkness as riffs of tunes formed into phrases then transformed into frenzied passages. As Jackiw finished the work with a heaven storming quotation of “Work for the Day is Coming,” Denk answered with an ethereal Amen cadence to close Ives’ thorny but affecting musical journey.

Helping to bring these pieces to vivid life were the four singers of Hudson Shad. Singing with fine blend and the conviction of a country choir, they performed selected hymns that Ives quotes with a sweet sense of nostalgia.  Ives’ music may cast a glance to the past, but the memories that these sonatas evoke remain ever present. 

The next classical music event sponsored by the Celebrity Series will feature guitarists Sérgio and Odair Assad with mandolinist Avi Avital in music by Bach, Haydn, Debussy, Bartók, Piazzolla, and others 8 p.m. February 10 at Jordan Hall. celebrityseries.org; 617- 482-6661

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