WHRB Classical Reviews the Complete Ives Sonatas Performed by Jackiw and Denk

Producer Allison Pao had the opportunity to attend a unique program of the complete Ives Violin Sonatas performed by violinist Stefan Jackiw and pianist Jeremy Denk. The recital was presented by the Celebrity Series of Boston on January 26th, 2018. Image by Robert Torres.

Last Friday night, I experienced the sensitivity of violinist Stefan Jackiw’s violin playing complemented by the exuberance of Jeremy Denk’s piano playing in the extraordinarily beautiful Jordan Hall. The pair presented the four Violin Sonatas of American Modernist composer Charles Ives. These complex and rarely performed works may have been unfamiliar to many, but artistic director Denk ensured that the audience could understand the pieces by providing insightful commentary and by inviting the vocal quartet Hudson Shad to introduce some of the many church hymns, popular songs, and patriotic marches referenced by Ives.

The fourth sonata – the simplest and the shortest – was performed first. Jackiw and Denk evoked the childlike atmosphere evoked by the subtitle of the sonata “Children’s Day at the Camp Meeting” through their delicate yet carefree playing. Denk entertained and informed the audience by discussing some of the funny quirks in the score, such as the tempo marking of the second movement, Allegro Conslugarocko, a word defined by Ives as referencing “sneaking away from the service to go slug rocks in the river.”

Before the third sonata, Denk eloquently explained to the audience how Ives reversed the traditional sonata form by beginning movements with complicated development sections from which a single melody eventually emerges. This technique is best observed in the final movement of the 3rd sonata which, in the words of Ives, begins with a “free fantasia.” It is only in the coda that the theme – the tune from the hymn “I need thee every hour” – is finally heard in its entirety. Jackiw’s decision to omit vibrato from his rendition of this contrasted to his earlier more sweetly romantic playing. The result was reminiscent of a solitary voice in a church. The lack of vibrato lent a solemn and sacred air to this final expression of the hymn. The audience greatly enjoyed the virtuosic second movement, inspired by ragtime, and showed its appreciation by clapping midway through the piece.

After the intermission, the second violin sonata transported audience members back to rural New England through movements entitled Autumn, In the barn, and The revival. In a brief speech, Denk again emphasized the sentimental nature of Ives’s works. He beautifully described one of the songs performed by the Hudson Shad as a “distilled dose of nostalgia.” Indeed, when WHRB Classical interviewed Jackiw a few weeks ago, Jackiw alluded to Ives’s “Proustian obsession of recapturing the sweetness, the tenderness of youth.” The highlight of this sonata was the second movement which was filled with existing and original fiddle tunes. At one point, the movement required Jackiw to play a quarter tone out of tune in order to recall an elementary school student attempting to learn his/her instrument (which drew some laughs from the audience).

For me, the highlight of the evening was the final sonata performed (the first violin sonata of Ives). By now, I was more familiar with the style of Ives, and I was not caught off guard by the twists and turns his music took. The performances Hudson Shad gave of the tunes “The Old Oaken Bucket” and “Tramp, Tramp, Tramp, the Boys are Marching” greatly aided my listening. Hearing the melody finally emerge as an oasis of calm from the preceding stormy and thorny march was truly remarkable.

In some ways, the sonatas of Ives resemble the stream-of-consciousness style of writing embraced by the parallel Modernist literary movement. Ives jumps from subject to subject, often without warning, and intersperses these with allusions to musical quotations from all different walks of life. In doing so, Ives seeks to accurately convey the nature of thought itself, complete with remembrances, distortions, and interruptions. Jackiw appeared to acknowledge these sudden character changes very deliberately, while Denk seemed to approach the musical material more spontaneously. The playing styles were equally effective and furthermore balanced each other. Rather than smoothing out the sometimes-jarring quality of the music, both players instead emphasized the shifts in mood, volume, and timbre, and in doing so, they brought the audience with them on a sentimental, humorous, and sometimes bumpy journey through childhood. Together, Jackiw and Denk successfully interpreted these beautiful, innovative and nostalgic sonatas in what was truly a magical evening of chamber music-making.

Allison Pao is a Producer for WHRB Classical. You can hear classical music on WHRB on Mondays - Fridays 1pm - 10 pm, Saturdays 1pm - 9pm, and Sundays 2pm - midnight.