The near-capacity Celebrity Series crowd at Jordan Hall Friday buzzed with the expectation that something great was about to happen: a most unusual recital by the rising major violinist Stefan Jackiw, and estimable pianist Jeremy Denk, consisting of all four violin sonatas by Charles Ives. In our 40-something years of concert-going in the Boston area, we can’t remember another such program, though you can find at least a dozen recordings of the full set on Amazon (not counting many reissues and repackagings of the original recording by Paul Zukofsky and Gilbert Kalish). Given that not so long ago, a program of Ives alone could empty a hall the size of Jordan rather than fill it, this counts as major progress (and obviates any need that Denk anachronistically felt to make a joke “apologia” for doing so).
In point of fact, the four sonatas, which fill but do not overfill a standard concert program, mostly derive from materials from the first decade of the 20th century, even though they were assembled in final form during the subsequent decade, and use harmonic practices that by and large do not adopt the complex polytonal layering that characterize his most famous/notorious works of the ’teens. The result is a much easier-to-penetrate view into Ives’s unique perspective of forward-looking nostalgia, and his innovative formal adaptations to convey the emergence of simplicity from complexity. As pointed out by J. Peter Burkholder in his brilliant analysis All Made of Tunes, in these sonatas Ives crystallized his formal pattern of creating movements in which the development of (what were then) familiar tunes comes first and the tunes themselves emerge from the development.
By now everyone knows that Ives in a large proportion (probably most) of his work used thematic materials derived from American hymn, patriotic and popular tunes, and indeed all the violin sonatas do so for the most part (the barn-dance tune in the scherzo to the Second Sonata was original). Because most of these melodies are no longer part of a shared cultural heritage, Denk and Jackiw made the sagacious decision to bring in a vocal quartet, Hudson Shad (Mark Bleeke, tenor; Eric Edlund, baritone; Peter Becker, bass-baritone; and Wilbur Pauley, bass), to sing some of them, in Pauley’s arrangements, between the sonatas. The choice of which of these tunes to present was mostly clear-cut; there was one omission that weakened audience understanding of one of the sonatas, which we’ll come back to later. The group performed with resonance, well-sustained barbershop harmony, and considerable theatrical flair. Their singing from actual hymn books made for a nice touch.
Another well-taken decision by the performers was to present the sonatas in reverse numerical order so as to emphasize the increasing level of complexity in the actual musical structure (not a big issue chronologically, since all of them were completed within a short time). Thus, though the Fourth Sonata, subtitled “Children’s Day at the Camp Meeting,” was originally intended for performance by Ives’s nephew, Moss White Ives, that was a forlorn hope Ives soon abandoned, but the child-centric affect remained. From the get-go the different performing personalities of Jackiw and Denk manifest themselves: Denk, the experienced Ivesian, sounded perky, rough and ready, whilke Jackiw, noted for his sheen and polish, glided on wings of melody (and sometimes got covered as a consequence). The second movement found the players in greater accord, with an effect both dreamy and ardent (mild digression: to our thinking, what makes Ives a great composer rather than a merely interesting one is his insistence on emotional engagement, from his end and the listener’s, no matter how simple or complex the musical materials he uses), while in its middle section Denk showed that he could wind up and slug those rocks (from Ives’s droll tempo indication allegro con slugarocko). The finale, based on “Shall We Gather at the River,” which Ives also turned into one of his more famous songs, had its tune taken quite briskly; the players closed with a delicious fade.
The Third Sonata isn’t nearly as simple as its position on the program would suggest, though it was one in which Ives deliberately adopted a harmonic language designed to appeal to broader audiences (a decision for which he later nearly disowned the work). In 1917 Ives rented out Carnegie Recital Hall (now called Weill Hall) and put this sonata on the program, so he didn’t really think that badly of it at the time, and Burkholder for one praises it for its direct alliance of form and emotional content. The first movement, unique in Ives’s output, is a developing verse-and-chorus structure whose concluding mashup of two hymns gains impact with each iteration. Jackiw and Denk were exquisitely soulful and communicative. By contrast, the fast second movement saw sparky displays of virtuosity by Denk and some of Jackiw’s earthiest playing, introducing raucous slides, and gaining for them a rare mid-work round of applause. The finale, in the “cumulative” form, brought out some grand gestures, with a fine sense of hush leading to the beautiful build-up on the melody’s reveal.
The Second Sonata contains more material than its brethren from the so-called “Pre-First” sonata of 1907 that Ives started, abandoned and partially reallocated to the others, and so its source materials can be considered earlier than the others (though the Third has material older still). Ives’s reworkings, though, significantly tightened it and it is now one of the best introductions to Ives’s techniques and esthetics. The development in the first movement, in particular, based on the hymn “Autumn” (unusually, this movement uses only one source hymn, but uses different parts of it for the first and second themes of the movement), is rich and intense, and Jackiw and Denk put their shoulders into it up to the sweet and near-silent coda. The barn dance scherzo, with many interpolated tunes and styles (marches, folksongs, ragtime, Civil War songs), was a frothy and earthy delight, maybe even for Ives—this sonata has about the only pizzicato in the set—and Jackiw added a touch of his own, emphasizing as other performances we’ve heard have not (a testimony to his stellar technique) an on-the-fly scordatura in one phrase, microtonally flat, which got the intended audience chuckle. The somber and moving finale, based on “Nettleton” (Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing), received a performance that built inexorably to the ecstatic and suddenly hushed close.
It would take an extended essay to tease out the rich complexities of the First Sonata’s construction and esthetic program. In one of the few misjudgments in their presentation, Denk and Jackiw did not have Hudson Shad sing one hymn whose contribution is significant to understanding this sonata, nor did Denk, in his introductory remarks, even mention it: “Watchman, Tell Us of the Night,” words by John Bowring and melody by Lowell Mason, who also composed the melody of the other principal hymn, “Work Song,” that informs the finale. Ives designed a subtle cyclicality in this sonata, using in the first movement a tune, “Shining Shore,” that shares motivic material—it’s fleeting but clearly audible—with “Watchman.” With its typically mercurial moods, this movement benefited greatly from Jackiw and Denk’s well-shaped phrasing. This sonata, like the Fourth, boasts fast outer movements, so the slow movement sandwiched between them stands in sharp relief. Based on the Civil War songs “The Old Oaken Bucket” and “Tramp, Tramp, Tramp,” it is gently nostalgic (which you wouldn’t expect in matters dealing with war) in ways quite different from Ives’s usual references to childhood—this is more of a modernist’s quest for meaning, which fits perfectly with the existential tenor of this sonata’s esthetic program. Ives here treats his materials rather as the Cubists did theirs, with a rising phrase in one key answered by another phrase in a different key, giving you, as it were, all sides in one go. Jackiw and Denk evoked the yearning and regret of this music as well as if it had been Brahms. Properly understood, the finale, juxtaposing “Work Song” (Work, For the Night is Coming) with “Watchman” (the setting here is very close to what Ives used to open his Fourth Symphony), sends a potentially chilling message underneath the former’s chugging purposefulness (if the choir had sung all the verses to “Work Song” its metaphoric meaning would have been clearer, since the night in question is not just the literal one). Still, whether conscious of it or not, Jackiw and Denk made a moving, heartfelt statement here to conclude the recital.
The abundance of superb playing by these gifted musicians deserved the ovation they received, and we hope that they set a precedent for doing the full Ives set live. These works of genius deserve to be standard repertoire for all violinists. At the same time, we hope that Jackiw, in particular, revisits them as he ages, so that he can see the wisdom in exchanging some of his usual gloss for the rugged beauty of Ives’s conceptions.
Vance R. Koven studied music at Queens College and New England Conservatory, and law at Harvard. A composer and practicing attorney, he was for many years the chairman of Dinosaur Annex Music Ensemble.