Ives Revealed: the four Violin and Piano Sonatas, along with Some Hymns used in the Sonatas

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Stefan Jackiw and Jeremy Denk play Ives' Violin Sonatas at Ozawa Hall. Photo. Hilary Scott.
Stefan Jackiw and Jeremy Denk play Ives’ Violin Sonatas at Ozawa Hall. Photo. Hilary Scott.

Tanglewood, Ozawa Hall, July 25, 2019

The complete Violin and Piano Sonatas [4] of Charles Ives
Stefan Jackiw, violin, Jeremy Denk, piano; hymns performed by the Hudson Shad vocal quartet 

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. They are kaleidoscopic in their gestures, mercurial in their structures, and wide-ranging in an emotional language firmly rooted in nostalgia (as Jeremy Denk pointed out in his well-chosen introductory remarks) as well as in the search for the transcendent. Shaping of each gesture expressively and joining of them together constitutes a challenging task for interpreters who properly should live with these works for years before presenting them to the public. The joy of these works for both listeners and performers is that they are open to a wide range of valid performance possibilities, and each performance can find its own character.

I heard Jackiw, Dent, and Hudson Shad perform this same program three-and-a-half years ago at the 92nd Street Y in New York, so I had some idea of what to expect, but I was pleasantly surprised by the way these performances have grown in the meantime. Earlier, it seemed that Jackiw was following in Paul Zukovsky’s footsteps in seeking an almost anti-romantic approach,[1 In fact, in personal conversation he told me that he was an admirer of the Zukovsky-Kalish set.] while Dent’s pianism, always romantic, tended to overshadow the more austere-sounding violin part. Now, while the violinist might occasionally take a back seat to the piano when called for, playing with straight tone and subdued expression, more of the time, he matched his partner in fervor, color, and gesture, approaching the flamboyant or ecstatic when required. The present performances were more spontaneous, sometimes almost improvisatory, but always with perfectly unanimity and exquisitely balanced. While Dent served as spokesperson for the performance (his verbal abilities and musicological background match his performing skills), Jackiw was a full interpretive partner, making use of a very wide dynamic range (unmatched at the quiet end of the dynamic spectrum, but newly robust at the other) and varying his tone colors through a large repertory of vibratos and bow pressures. Also new was the uninhibited use of fiddle styles such as slides and swinging rhythms. At one point in the barn dance movement of the Second Sonata, he played a few phrases of “The Arkansas Traveller” a full quarter-tone flat, fully in the Ivesian spirit of parody (though not explicitly called for in the score), an effect that had broadened considerably since the earlier performance. While these works pose formidable technical challenges, there was not hint that they dictated any interpretive choices. The rapid changes of mood, tempo, and dynamics demanded by Ives’ volatile personality were realized with an appropriate abandon. The wilder passages for the piano seemed to be on the verge of spinning out of control, but they were written that way, and Denk channeled Ives the pianist in a manner that was almost spooky. You can hear Ives’ own recordings of bits of his piano music made in the late ‘30’s and early ‘40’s when he was aged and suffering from poor health, and still detect the young piano virtuoso who loved to raise a ruckus all over the keyboard. Needless to say, Denk was playing exactly what was in the score, but as Ives wrote to one of his copyists, “Don’t change anything; the wrong notes are right.”

Assisting in his introductory comments to each sonata, Denk was able draw on performances by Hudson Shad to illustrate some of the hymns on which Ives based the work;1 however, he was only able to point to the ones he considered most important, and a few crucial borrowings were of necessity omitted; to include them would have required a separate lecture, or perhaps a lengthy essay. To take one example, however, the first movement of the Second Sonata is built around the hymn tune “Autumn,” as Denk indicated. The second movement is a barn dance with a potpourri of fiddle tunes, but culminates in the popular Civil War song, “The Battle Cry of Freedom” by George F. Root, one of Ives’s favorite popular song composers. It turns out that barn dances in New England often concluded with this song, during which the dancers sang out the lyrics in lusty voices.2 Certainly Ives’ treatment of it here captures that raucous spirit. The final movement is beautifully shaped around the folk hymn “Nettleton,” which Denk did not mention or illustrate. Too bad; recognition of the melody (and its lyric) opens up the narrative arc of the movement. The text is “Come thou fount of every blessing” (church-going readers are probably still familiar with it). Ives must have had this line in mind when shaping the music, which begins as a faint prayer as if from the lips of a sick or dying person, and is developed as a ghostly canon in two different keys, as if the earthly tune is being echoed on another and higher plane. (This is not just the reviewer’s fantasy; it is fully in keeping with Ives’s own transcendental version of religion.) The music grows in strength and develops a more driving rhythm, as the confidence of the supplicant has grown, and finally the fountain itself arrives like a geyser, exploding into the kind of ecstasy that one might encounter at mass prayer meetings like those of Ives’ boyhood in Danbury, Connecticut. At the conclusion, the ecstatic frenzy recedes, leaving the phrase “every blessing” presented haltingly, with a clear musical question mark attached. (Ives’ religious philosophy was always questioning, never dogmatic.) Although this powerful subtext was not presented in words, the fervency of the performance substituted music for words, and one way or another, the message was delivered.

There are many valid ways to perform Ives’ music, including these sonatas. Jackiw and Denk will record them for Nonesuch (hopefully soon), and it will then be possible to do some AB comparisons. My first choice would be to set them alongside the Fulkerson-Shannon set on Bridge. I predict that the contrasts will be clear, owing to the performers’ individual personalities; but I also doubt that it will be possible to say which represents Ives’ vision best. Ives himself wished to empower performers to own the music, even to the point of changing the notes (he sometimes even provided alternatives in some passages). The final question becomes the willingness to invest a full measure of individual creativity in the interpretation and presentation. It was clear to the audience at Ozawa Hall that the performers were doing just that, an act of the performer sharing every particle of the music whole-heartedly and with great generosity. Despite the composer’s fearsome reputation, his love of dissonance and chaotic frenzy, his crustiness, and his occasional impenetrability (Perhaps the reason for the number of empty seats scattered throughout the hall), those present experienced something else: a belief in humanity in all its aspects, and a revelation of beauty both in this world and in the unknown world(s) beyond.

  1. A bit perversely, the hymn performances placed the tune in the tenor, beneath a less interesting descant that obscured the crucial melodic shapes. The performances were polished and beautiful, but that is not always the way Ives heard them—he sometimes preferred a rough “amateur” rendition as sung by the farmers at camp meetings in Danbury.
  2. The refrain is: “For we’ll rally round the flag, boys, rally once again—Shouting the Battle Cry of Freedom…”
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