“Ives wants to recreate the raw experience of music-making, something unfiltered, and beyond all your piano lessons … While driving me crazy, he reminds me why I play the piano at all.” — Jeremy Denk
If there is one composer in whose works Jeremy Denk has inspired nothing but frank and heartfelt praise, it is thorny American experimentalist Charles Ives. Denk’s recital programs have long featured not only Ives’s famous and monumental “Concord” Sonata but also the far less familiar Sonata No. 1, impressing critics with “thrilling performances” (Anthony Tommasini, New York Times) that offer “an entire world” (Anne Midgette, Washington Post). Now the pianist’s celebrated Ives interpretations have finally been committed to disc; due for CD release on October 12, Jeremy Denk plays Ives will be launched in advance in its entirety on iTunes, where it will be available for download from July 27.
In accompanying booklet notes that remind us why the Washington Post’s Joan Reinthaler found Denk’s “the most interesting and well-written program notes [she had] ever read,” the pianist asks: “Why Ives?” After all, while recognized as an important and influential American original who anticipated many musical innovations to come, Charles Ives (1874-1954) is best known for the dissonance and seeming chaos of his sound world, in which disparate elements are not so much juxtaposed as superimposed, apparently jostling for space. And yet, as Denk explains,
“It’s not [the] so-called historical importance that makes me love the music. There is a terrific tenderness emanating from this dissonant, difficult music: a tenderness for experiences of childhood, for the ‘uneducated,’ fervid hymn-singing of camp meetings, for the silliness of ragtime, for the quaint wistful corners of ballads, and on and on. There is a correspondingly enormous wit: the love of crazy musical mishap, a love of syncopation, disjunction, mash-up; the merger of opposites. He recreates, almost like Proust, a whole world for us: the musical world of America in the last part of the 19th century. He evokes a tremendous nostalgia for that world, while making it alive again.”
It is Denk’s ability to synthesize this emotional connection to the music with more intellectual analysis – not to mention full technical mastery of the material – that sets his interpretations apart.
While Ives’s second piano sonata has achieved so much greater fame than the first, taken together, Denk realizes, “The two piano sonatas are wonderful representations of the two productive decades of his composing life. The first, with its hymn-improvisations and its ragtime dances, represents an earlier, more variegated Ives,” while “the famous ‘Concord’ Sonata represents the summit of Ives’ maturity, an attempt to consolidate his musical (and extramusical) thinking…in a huge statement.” When Denk revived the five-movement First Sonata (1909) at last season’s Ojai Music Festival, the Los Angeles Times’s Mark Swed dubbed him a “hero of the Festival,” adding: “If he had done nothing more than rescue Ives’ First Piano Sonata from obscurity, which he did in his glorious Saturday morning recital, I would say the weekend would have been worthwhile.” Rita Moran, reporting for the Ventura County Star, shared Swed’s enthusiasm, concluding that the “idiosyncratic Ives rarely seemed so relevant…and [Denk’s] joy in playing was infectious.”