Charles Ives (1874-1954) was the first composer whose music gave a comprehensive sound-picture of life in America. This musical picture is of America during a certain time and in a particular place. This America was the New England of Ives’ youth, and later the New York of his adulthood. The music moves back and forth between overwhelming complexity and childlike simplicity, between grinding, aggressive dissonance and clear, hymnal-like harmony, and between tunes we’ve known all our lives and alien other-worldly abstraction, often with whiplash-inducing speed. It is probably inevitable that this musical embodiment of a diverse, almost contradictory nation is based on such striking dualities.
The most important of the dualities embodied in Ives’ music, though, is that of interior/ideational and exterior/experiential expression. (You could argue that all art is based on this dichotomy, but it is radically at the center of Ives’ aesthetic.) That is, Ives takes his memories and experiences and abstracts them into musical structures, while at the same time he often puts the external experience on the surface of the music in the form of quotations.
In Ives’ music for orchestra and for string quartet, this internal/external dichotomy is a function of community, where the layers of music can be heard as a picture of an event projected through the prism of artistic remembrance. Whether “Columbia, The Gem of the Ocean” or “Turkey in the Straw” is heard in the foreground is a matter of perspective when they occur simultaneously in the musical texture.
In a piece for solo piano, it’s different. All of the various strands of music come from the same place, from the same fingers. The expressive tension that results from the external/internal dichotomy in Ives’ music is magnified exponentially. His two piano sonatas are monumental essays on American thought and experience.
Pianist Jeremy Denk is known in the musical blogosphere for his imaginative and informative writing. Reviews of his performances cite a powerful combination of intelligence and imagination in his playing. Given this, it’s not surprising that Denk chose for his debut recording Ives’ two piano sonatas. Throughout both of these pieces, Denk handles the shifts in mood and style, and the contrapuntal complexities of this music with apparent ease.
The First Sonata is a sprawling arch in five movements. Denk projects Ives’ architecture without sacrificing the often playful expressive elements, such as the raucous quotation of “Bringin’ in the Sheaves” near the end of the second movement. Denk’s performance makes a very strong case for this often-neglected work.
The First Sonata is neglected only because the Second Sonata (“Concord, Mass., 1840-1860”) is one of the most influential piano works of the 20th century, as well as one of the touchstones of American concert music. The Concord Sonata is one of Ives’ most difficult works, both in execution (which you would never know from Denk’s performance) and in musical substance, but since that difficulty is part and parcel of what the piece is about, it is immediately approachable as well.
The Concord Sonata’s four movements are character sketches of figures associated with American Transcendentalism—Emerson, Hawthorne, The Alcotts, and Thoreau. The subject matter is a natural field for Ives’ one-foot-in-the-world-the-other-in-the-stars approach to music. It is clearly natural to Denk as well—this is the best, most convincing account of this work I have ever heard. His technique seems to know no bounds and his ability to shift gears without warning is a tremendous asset here. The violence in passages in both the Emerson and Hawthorne movements is more than matched by the tenderness is the lyrical episodes of “The Alcotts”.
Not surprisingly, Denk’s notes are a lively read, offering clues to what we will hear in the recording, and the sound is excellent. Denk is an extraordinary musician and a fine thinker. I have a list of pieces in my head that would love to hear him take on, but I think I’ll keep it to myself and just see where he goes next.