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Four Ives Violin Sonatas—with Tunes

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The title of J. Peter Burkholder’s book,  “All Made of Tunes,” describes the essence of Ives’s style.  The remarkable performance of all four of Charles Ives’s violin-and-piano sonatas by the brilliant young violinist Stefan Jackiw and the older, MacArthur Award-winning pianist Jeremy Denk, made specific homage to that essential fact about Ives by inviting a male vocal quartet, the Hudson Shad (actually, a full strength, a group of five singers and a pianist) to perform some of the hymn tunes and popular songs that underlie the sonatas, sometimes so deeply that they are difficult to decrypt. I’ve never attended an Ives concert that offered this extra fillip, except in academic circles, but it is an excellent idea, because—except among old-time New England Protestants, and not even many of those—hardly anyone these days remembers the most popular songs of Ives’s youth, the last quarter of the 19th century, when he soaked up an entire musical world and then recreated it in his own unique image.

The splendid duo Thursday at Ozawa Hall consisted of the young violinist Stefan Jackiw (whom I first heard perform as a 14-year-old student playing a standard concerto with a community orchestra in the Boston area roughly 20 years ago) and the masterly Jeremy Denk, a wide-ranging performer who is also an articulate speaker about music and a MacArthur Fellowship winner. They make an excellent pair, capturing the flow and complexity of Ives’s counterpoint, yet also the delicate whisper of passages that come on like the flow of memory, since so much of Ives seems to be a recalling of former days.

They chose to play the sonatas in reverse order, from a work that is one of the lightest to one that is among the densest. Sonata 4 bears the title “Children’s Day at the Camp Meeting,” which also recalls the Third Symphony (“The Camp Meeting”), with its second movement, “Children’s Day.” The music includes familiar tunes like “Yes, Jesus loves me” and an imitation of children throwing stones into the river (Allegro con slugarocko), a full panoply of life, hovering between dynamic energy and a bare echo of a phrase in “Shall we gather at the river?” with which the piece slips into silence.

Denk gave a brief spoken introduction to each of the sonatas, describing the tunes on which Ives drew for that work, and, in the last three sonatas on the program, introducing the Hudson Shad to sing at least the most important (and least remembered) songs, as they did in January 2018 at Jordan Hall. [our review HERE]

Sonata 3 is also filled with reflections of camp meetings and hymn singing, “Beulah Land” and “I Need Thee Every Hour,” but also an energetic break-out of music inspired by an African-American tradition that would not have been present at a camp meeting, ragtime. The playing suggested yet again the range of expressive possibilities in old New England.

The Second Sonata, depictionng “Autumn,” is filled with harvest celebrations and barn dances. (Denk noted in his introduction, “Whenever you hear ‘Turkey in the Straw’ in an Ives piece, you know all hell will break loose!”) Once again, the close is calm and related to hymnody, though, as so often elsewhere, only fragmentary. The music may be “all made of tunes,” but the references slip in and out of memory almost unnoticed. In this case, the sonata disappears in a tentative hint of “Come thou fount of every blessing” wafted away by the violin.

Sonata 1 features a sustained, mostly quiet slow movement that Jackiw and Dent sustained with almost breathless continuity, so that the last movement, an assertive working-out of “Work for the Night is Coming” made a vigorous and powerful close to the entire program.

Four Ives sonatas in a single program may well be, for some listeners, more than they are able to focus on in one sitting, but when, as on this occasion, they are so superbly played—in technique, clarity of the contrapuntal lines even in particularly dense parts, and expressive response to the tunes that Ives builds with—it is not too much at all.

Steven Ledbetter is a freelance writer and lecturer on music. He got his BA from Pomona College and PhD from NYU in Musicology. He taught at Dartmouth College in the 1970s, then became program annotator at the Boston Symphony Orchestra from 1979 to 1997.

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