Aspen Music Festival: Jackiw and Denk find beauty in Ives sonatas

United StatesUnited States Aspen Music Festival – Ives: Stefan Jackiw (violin), Jeremy Denk (piano), presented virtually by Aspen Music Festival, streaming from Steinway Hall, New York, 9.8.2020. (HS)

Stefan Jackiw (violin), & Jeremy Denk (piano)

Ives – Violin Sonata No.4 ‘Children’s Day at the Camp Meeting’; Violin Sonata No.2; Violin Sonata No.3

Any conversation about the music of Charles Ives usually begins with its rugged embrace of dissonance. Violinist Stefan Jackiw and pianist Jeremy Denk wrapped themselves around something different: they homed in on the composer’s roots in Protestant hymns and the popular music of his day in the Violin Sonatas Nos.2, 3 and 4. These aspects rose above any tendency toward raucous clashes of sound.

Written in 1914, the sonatas rely on a range of hymns and tunes that would have been familiar to audiences of the day (and probably quite a few church-goers today). While introducing each piece from his home, Denk often turned to the piano to play them, and managed to convey real enthusiasm for the music with hardly any hints of academic dryness. He summed it up nicely in noting that Ives had a genius for ‘hearing old things freshly’.

Denk and Jackiw were clearly on the same page. In the performance, streamed from an intimate performance space at Steinway Hall in New York City, they started with Sonata No.4 ‘Children’s Day at the Camp Meeting,’ the shortest one, crammed with dozens of hymn and song references and the composer’s signature musical clashes. Jackiw’s silvery sound warmed to the melodic strands, making them easy to trace as they eventually coalesced into full statements of the tunes.

They seemed to downplay Ives’ harmonic clashes, even in the sections where it must have been tempting to cut loose and let the harshness fly, as in the brief ‘Allegro con sluggarocko’ section of ‘Children’s Day’ or the discordant hoedown of ‘In the Barn’, the middle movement of No.2. Denk and Jackiw were intent to find a flow and let the dissonance color it without emphasizing it.

The result was an hour of highly listenable music played by artists who had an idea of what they wanted to convey and did it well.

This culminated in a resoundingly emotional Sonata No.3, which began hauntingly with intertwining hazy chords from Denk and seemingly random gestures of lovely melodic strands from Jackiw, and developed into a kind of fantasia weaving snatches of memory into a plush fabric. After a middle-movement Allegro that rose from peaceful chords to elements of a rousing tent revival meeting, the Adagio cantabile finale brought the music to a soulful, generous, serene finish with a ravishing statement of the hymn ‘I Need Thee Every Hour’.

In an aside during his introduction for the third sonata, Denk characterized this as a warm embrace – ‘something we cannot do much these days’, he added poignantly. The concert did its best to provide it musically.

The performance repeats once Tuesday evening at 7 p.m. MDT on the Aspen Music Festival website (click here) and YouTube channel.

Harvey Steiman

Leave a Comment