Review: Jackiw, Denk bring out the warmth in Ives sonatas at virtual Aspen Music Fest

Harvey Steiman
Special to The Aspen Times
Violinist Stefan Jackiw and pianist Jeremy Denk performing at Sunday's virtual Aspen Music Festival concert.

When we talk about the music of Charles Ives, we usually focus on its rugged embrace of dissonance. Violinist Stefan Jackiw and pianist Jeremy Denk wrapped themselves around something different in the Aspen Music Festival’s featured Sunday concert. They homed in on the composer’s roots in Protestant hymns and the popular music of his day in the violin sonatas No. 2, 3 and 4. These aspects rose above any tendency toward raucous clashes of sound.

All 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 space at Steinway Hall in New York City, they started with sonata No.4 “Children’s Day at the Camp Meeting,” the shortest, 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.

Together 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 soulfully 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. This concert did its best to provide it musically, at least.

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

Coming up this week: Before next Sunday’s penultimate Sunday offering, a piano recital by Andreas Haefliger that includes Beethoven’s “Hammerklavier” Sonata, are two discussions Wednesday that look like they’re worth tuning in on. A Zoom panel discussion at 10 a.m. explores Beethoven as a historical figure and an avatar of progress and freedom, and the faculty-student showcase at 5 p.m. features Renée Fleming, the newly minted co-director the festival’s opera program, with soprano Julia Bullock and bass-baritone Ryan McKinny on how to forge a career in these perilous times.

Harvey Steiman has been writing about the Aspen Music Festival since the early 1990s. His reviews appear Tuesdays in The Aspen Times.