As complex as they are on the page, Ives’s violin sonatas need powerfully imaginative interpretations to come fully alive, ones finely attuned to the composer’s unique sensibility, background, and musical idiom, ready to embody a spirit of exploration, experimentation, and even improvisation. Performances can err on the side of a traditional, European (i.e. Brahmsian) approach, such as the recording by Rafael Druian and John Simms, made in the ‘50’s, a streamlined modernist approach e.g. Paul Zukovsky and Gilbert Kalish, from the ‘60’s, a showy, virtuosic approach, like that of Hilary Hahn and Valentina Lisitsa from 2011; or they can find a balance among these that incorporates American vernacular fiddling traditions, like Gregory Fulkerson and Robert Shannon from 1989. All of this is required if these works are to cohere and succeed in communicating their emotional contents to an audience.
Boston has had a very good music season since the first of the year. Notably, Andris Nelsons has established himself ever more fully as leader of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. After a triumphant concert performance of Strauss’s Elektra in the fall, Nelsons came back with especially strong accounts of three large-scale symphonies: the Shostakovich Eighth in March, and the Bruckner Third and Mahler Ninth in April. All were brilliantly played by the orchestra, which seems to have accommodated itself to Nelsons very well.
Revolutions, the saying goes, are frequently revisited as farce. If only one knew it at the time! In the ferment of the 1970s, a seeming battle to the death played itself out among advocates of dodecaphonic music and the apostles of deconstructed “happenings.” Both insurgencies would ultimately lose. But the arrogance of the revolutionaries was no different in music from what it would have been in politics. The average listener hoping for Brahms found himself besieged in those days—contemptuously marginalized in either camp—-and marked for replacement. That is always the frightening dimension of revolution: the smugness of the cook breaking eggs for the new omelette—-and the suspicion that you may be one of the eggs.
I was not the only member of the Tannery Pond audience who has been following Jeremy Denk’s career with some avidity. He played there a few years ago, accompanying Paula Robison (who preceded Denk this summer) with quite a different group of colleagues. This particular gentleman, however, had heard him elsewhere, in his general concert-going, and, like me, instantly beame a Denkist — or perhaps we should call ourselves Denkonians, to avoid confusion with that particularly odious and venal branch of the medical profession.
My entry into the fold occurred at the Liszt Festival at Bard College, when I heard Mr. Denk perform the Liszt B minor Sonata. (He teaches there.) This seemed to me at the time, although I’ve heard some important pianists perform the work, including some great Lisztian intellectuals, like Kentner and Brendel, to be a supreme statement of the work. (Yes, somehow — most likely due to Liszt’s own exceptional intelligence and the literary culture he had acquired — at least some of his music is intellectual music, although he worked very hard at developing quite a different persona in his earlier career.)
Over the past few years, my enthusiasm for the Tannery Pond Concerts has been no secret. Where else can you hear a unique combination of the most celebrated soloists and chamber groups together with handpicked young musicians of extraordinary promise? And in a handsome Shaker tannery from the early nineteenth century with glorious acoustics. All this thanks to its director, Christian Steiner…