Pianist Jeremy Denk offered Ozawa Hall listeners a superb recital Wednesday comprising only two works, both colossal: Johann Sebastian Bach’s Aria mit verschiedenen Veränderungen (Aria with  Diverse Variations), commonly known as the Goldberg Variations, S. 988, published as Klavierübung IV (Keyboard Practice/Workbook, [Vol.] IV) in 1742, and Charles Ives’s Piano Sonata No. 2, “Concord, Mass, 1840-1860.”
Denk has recorded both works, the Bach in 2013 with liner notes on an accompanying DVD, and the Ives, his début solo CD, in 2010. He wrote an article about recording the latter, “The Flight of the Concord” that appeared in The New Yorker of 6 February 2012 (you can find it online), and the former was the subject of an article that included quotes from an interview in the Spring 2014 issue of Listen; Life With Classical Music (pp. 71-74). Kirkpatrick was the first to record the Concord Sonata in 1968, incorporating some of Ives’ post-1947 changes; this was re-mastered and reissued in 2013, the CD filled out with recordings from the 1930s and ’40s of Ives himself playing portions of the work, some of which he made to demonstrate how he wanted them to sound. The movements are titled with the names of the writers they evoke, but in the printed program of the 1939 première they also had descriptive texts (not reproduced in tonight’s program or in the booklets accompanying Denk’s or Kirkpatrick’s CDs) that characterize their nature: “Emerson, a composite picture or impression; Hawthorne, an extended ‘fragment’ reflecting some of his wilder adventures into the half-childlike, half-fairylike phantasmal realms; The Alcotts, a sketch; and Thoreau, an autumn day of Indian summer at Walden.” These were taken from Ives’s “Essays Before a Sonata” published in 1920 by The Knickerbocker Press simultaneously with the score, in which he summarizes the work thus:
[…] The whole is an attempt to present [one person’s] impression of the spirit of transcendentalism that is associated in the minds of many with Concord, Mass., of over a half century ago. This is undertaken in impressionistic pictures of Emerson and Thoreau, a sketch of the Alcotts, and a Scherzo supposed to reflect a lighter quality which is often found in the fantastic side of Hawthorne. The first and last movements do not aim to give any programs of the life or of any particular work of either Emerson or Thoreau but rather composite pictures or impressions. […]
Denk took the microphone to introduce the work, offering an excellent, succinct summary and characterization of it and each movement that deserves to be put down on paper. The excellent program notes in the book were by Jan Swafford, author of another important biography of Ives (C. I.: A Life With Music, New York: Norton, 1996) that I have read.
On the surface, these two seminal and transcendent works appear to be dramatically different from each other, but when examined more closely, they are both perceived to have been equally carefully crafted. The difference is that Bach’s is eminently architecturally balanced, logically progressive, and cyclical with the return of the aria at its end, while Ives’s is deliberately, intricately, and mathematically disconnected and disjointed. The history of their reception by the public is similar. In spite of public reverence for Bach, this work was ignored for over 200 years because its perceived instructional intent kept pianists from programming it until Glenn Gould played and recorded it in the 1950s making it and him an overnight sensation. Ives’s work was highly praised at its première and recognized by most as a masterpiece—Lawrence Gilman wrote in The New York Herald Tribune:
This sonata is exceptionally great music—it is, indeed, the greatest music composed by an American, and the most deeply and essentially American in impulse and implication. It is wide-ranging and capacious. It has passion, tenderness, humor, simplicity, homeliness. It has imaginative and spiritual vastness. It has wisdom and beauty and profundity, and a sense of the encompassing terror and splendor of human life and human destiny—a sense of those mysteries that are both human and divine. […] Mr. John Kirkpatrick […‘s] achievement as an artist was […] a prodigious feat of memory and execution. The sonata is almost unplayable. Its difficulties are appalling. Mr. Kirkpatrick conquered them all as though they did not exist. His performance was that of a poet and a master, an unobtrusive minister of genius. (21 January 1939, p. 9)
Goddard Lieberson, best known as the president of Columbia Records 1956-71, wrote: “As a whole, the Concord Sonata is certainly the most formidable piano composition to have come out of America. It is exceedingly difficult to perform, but its value rises far above any physical problems which it poses.” (Musical America, v. 59, no. 3 , p. 323).
But the work was not frequently programmed subsequently because of its challenges for the performer—it has no key and only occasional time signatures and bar lines, so is highly improvisatory in spite of the precision and profusion of the notes themselves—and for the public. It was perceived as an ultra-modern form—the French Baroque precedent of the prélude non-mesuré in the lute and harpsichord traditions of the 17th and 18th centuries was (and still is) unknown to nearly all, perhaps even to Ives himself—and consequently shunned by both alike. All of Ives’ music was rarely programmed because he was generally regarded as an oddball and an amateur or dilettante, since composing was not his ‘day job,’ his materials were so different from those found in standard scores, and his music was often associated with the 12-tone or atonal ones of the likes of Debussy, Schoenberg, and Webern, even though it bears no resemblance to them (It is essentially tonal and harmonious.), that were also shunned.
The Bach needs no introduction; it is now very popular with listeners and many pianists seem to feel the need to have a go at it live and on CD, perhaps to prove their mettle. The first CD I was ever asked to review was a recording of it by a 12-year-old, actually amazingly competent and sensitive, better than some by pianists with major careers, and for me better than Gould’s, whose 1981 take is better than the 1955 one. The work was composed for a double keyboard harpsichord, a plucked string instrument, so transferring it to the piano, a percussive one, presents significant challenges. One pianist commissioned a double-keyboard Steinway in order to be able to play the piece with the harpsichord fingerings; I heard a performance on it. Denk chose to play it mostly extremely lightly, reflectively, and somewhat rapidly to reproduce what harpsichordists can do more easily than pianists since the keys require much less effort to produce the sound and increased pressure does not change it; it was a most effective and pleasing solution. I find his CD of the work the finest of those on piano I have heard.
The Ives is a different matter; few attempt it and fewer still record it. It is polytonal and polyrhythmic, with the two hands often playing in different keys; it has wrong notes and accentuates wrong beats. It is highly unconventional, and throws the listener off, makes things seem off-kilter. A 14.75-inch wooden board is used to play the piano in a section of Hawthorne—the predecessor of tone clusters/cluster chords; there is an ad libitum flute just before the end of Thoreau. Segments of hymns, folk, popular, and Stephen Foster tunes are included, echoed, or imaginatively evoked with slightly wrong fragments, and the opening four-note motif of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony appears in several places, without its final note in the closing flute moment. Some rhythms are tinged with blues and jazz. It all resembles a massive mash-up, but in all its strangeness it is a magnificent masterpiece. It is not your average classical piano sonata and cannot be played four-square—Kirkpatrick tries a bit too much to formalize it in his CD; Denk’s captures its spirit much better. One wonders how Ives was able to craft this complex chaos, this meticulously organized pandemonium, because it is clearly not random or slapdash—and how a pianist can bring it off. Denk’s performance did not sound as if it were the baby or the cat playing the piano, as critic Ernest Walker described the presumed sound of the sonata when reviewing the 1920 score (Music & Letters, v. 2, no. 3 , p. 288; also quoted in Budiansky, p. 186).
Both works require not only impressive and impeccable technique from the pianist, both abundantly displayed by Denk, but also careful thought and insight, and sensitive understanding in order to make them intelligible, palatable, and enjoyable for the listener, if for different reasons: the Bach to make it rise above its learning-exercise identity, and the Ives to make its dramatically disjointed form, revolutionary for its time, that Budiansky characterizes as “freewheeling ideas and dissonant expressionism” (p. 251), understandable. Denk supplied these in abundance as well. These were his readings of the works on this occasion; they were not replicas of the performances on the CDs, because such is not possible; humans are not robots or machines. Although the scores are set down on paper, the music was alive because Denk brought it to life, having succeeded in getting into the heads of the composers, understood their creations, and communicated them to the listeners, who greeted him with a standing ovation. Denk rewarded them with a piece from Robert Schumann’s Davidsbündlertänze as an encore.
Denk seems to be doing for Ives’s Concord Sonata what Gould did for Bach’s Goldberg Variations: being an advocate for it and putting it before the public. Like Gould, famous for his humming along, he has some mannerisms that, if not reined in, can distract the audience and detract from the music: he tends to have dramatic facial expressions and a bobble-head, and to throw his left leg around and even stamp his left foot when he is absorbed in the music. He was often totally lost in it, alone on the stage, creating the sound worlds of Ives and Bach, and playing as if the audience was not there. The performance was extraordinary—transcending—and the beauty sublime, but it’s primarily an aural, not a visual beauty, so he should avoid unconsciously getting too lost and carried away; the audience deserves a pure rather than a slightly blemished beauty.
As an aficionado of historically informed performance practices, I also believe that the soundscape of an antique Chickering piano would offer something much closer to what Ives might have had in his mind’s ears than does a modern Steinway. It might be interesting to hear the Goldbergs on one too…