Jeremy Denk and Stefan Jackiw were joined by guest vocal quartet New York Polyphony for an evening focused on Charles Ives’ (1874-1954) Violin Sonatas. Rescheduled due to “Snowpocalypse2018,” this program has been waiting on the back burner for two years until the performers’ and Duke Performances‘ schedules allowed, but the Baldwin Auditorium concert was so well worth the wait! The idea here was to play through all four of Ives Violin Sonatas – ostensibly numbered 1 through 4, but the dates have been lost, and they were released more or less simultaneously. Ives was a notoriously experimental composer, due to fragmentary melodies, odd structures, and atonality (not using an underlying note or key to underpin and organize the themes and harmonies) resulting in an often-confusing landscape to the conventional listener. To mitigate this effect – or at least put it in context – New York Polyphony sang many of the hymns referenced in the sonatas immediately preceding these complex sonatas. Thus, the audience was able better to understand Ives’ motives and the way he so creatively celebrated many of the melodies that were already time-tested well before his time. This presented a nostalgic context for the music, showing the loving ways in which Ives had pulled familiar songs from his childhood and used them to develop his own compositional language.

Pianist Denk introduced the idea behind the program with obvious admiration for the composer, and gratitude to the dedicated Ives listeners who’d waited two years to hear this long-awaited concert. He explained that the order of works was meant to usher the listener into Ives’ process the most easily, starting with the least experimental and dissonant. Thus, he and Jackiw began with Sonata No. 4, “Children’s Day at Camp Meeting,” a nostalgic homage to childhood summers at church camp. The rustic Allegro begins with delightful jauntiness, and Jackiw employed a more fiddle-like bowing that was earnest and joyful. His technique seemed to grow, mature, and evolve with the ideas presented, and before long the duo delivered lovely romantic richness, pleasant but with occasional dissonance. That made the Allegro “con slugarocko” in the second movement all the more gratifying and surprising – meant to evoke the imagery of children tossing stones into a river in between camp sessions. Denk, appropriately, delivered the chords with great, playful force. The final, meandering yet jazzy movement is full of playful variations, reflecting on the familiar children’s tune “Jesus Loves Me,” (W.B. Bradbury & A.B. Warner) and seeming to allow the performers to tap into their own fond memories of childhood.

The singers then entered to sing “Beulah Land” (E.P. Stites & J.R. Sweney) and “I Need Thee Every Hour,” (R. Lowry & A. S. Hawks) – the latter is the framework for Sonata No. 3. The quartet’s harmonies were tight and snappy in “Beulah Land,” a cheery, early gospel piece led by tenor Steven Caldicott Wilson, and then looser and more reverent in “Need,” which is a more sacred hymn tune. Geoffrey Williams‘ sweet countertenor sparkled over the other strong voices, setting the stage for the sonata, immediately emerging with a minor variation on “Need.” All of the hymn tunes for this concert were edited by Wilber Pauley but then adapted by bass Craig Phillips for New York Polyphony’s performance.

Jackiw and Denk again did a wonderful job exploring Ives’ landscape of variations and experimentations, navigating sweet, lush chords as well as harsh, showy lines fraught with double-stops on the violin, which Jackiw flew through with remarkable grace. Sonata No. 3 is like a reverse theme and variations, exploring verses of “Need” in very strange ways until revealing the whole theme, which feels like being rewarded with a lovely dessert when it finally appears in full. The second and third movements utilize the bouncy, jaunty feeling of “Beulah” to build a ragtime-inspired section; then the third movement feels like a fantasy of the first two, celebrating all these ideas in a language that is characteristically Ives’.

After a pause, the more experimental Sonata No. 2, “Autumn,” was introduced, with Denk explaining the structure before beginning the set. His enthusiasm grew more and more unbridled over the course of the evening, and hearing him not only introduce and explain but also actually sing and quote some of the melodies that would be used was endearing – and illuminating. Polyphony returned to introduce “Mighty God, While Angels Bless Thee (Autumn)” (F.H. Barthélémon & R. Robinson), with delightful balance of voices and the most delicate vocal slide on the final “Amen” lyric.

Immediately Sonata No. 2 presents itself as a more experimental, challenging work, but it also has some of the most rewarding moments; the first movement is almost entirely fragmented, venturing through lots of tonalities and moods and challenging the performers. Jackiw charged through a passionate, difficult performance, until the work virtually disappeared into silence, laying a suspenseful and slightly comedic pause for the second movement to enter. “In the Barn,” the second movement, is, as Denk explained: “Well…, alcohol may have been involved!” It is a synthesis of all the best parts of a barn dance: jaunty rhythms, catchy tunes, passionate fiddle bowing, and sheer volume. Jackiw suddenly took on the visage of a beginner violin student, hunching, squinting, and appearing to concentrate very hard when “Turkey in the Straw” obstinately asserted its melody, before evolving before our eyes rapidly into an expert again. The final movement gathered up this frenetic energy into a more spiritual gathering of harmony, with matter-of-fact dissonance that was more subtle.

The final work was framed with the most songs, since its subject matter is the most complicated. The chorus’ final set included a combination of hymns – “The Shining Shore” (G.F. Root & D. Nelson) and “The Old Oaken Bucket” (G.F. Kiallmark & S. Woodworth) – and Civil War marching tunes – “Tramp! Tramp! Tramp! The Boys are Marching” (Root) and “Work, for the Night is Coming” (L. Mason & A.L. Coghill).

Sonata No. 1 is by far the most experimental and disparate, immediately underpinned by “Shining Shore,” but obviously very fragmented. Denk’s and Jackiw’s performances were glorious and passionate, making the work sound almost completely improvisatory. The music paints a complicated picture of a post-Civil-War landscape, full of hope and glory but also conflict, confusion, and sorrow. Naturally, it never quite resolves, leaving an open question of what to make of wartime and America’s future but acknowledging its past with a muted, choral passage echoing the classic “Amen” cadence at the end of many of these hymns.

The performance was charged with emotion. Denk and Jackiw were always fully committed to whatever emotion or idea they portrayed and were incredibly captivating as performers. They are experts and, whether or not they consider themselves to be Ives scholars, they certainly rendered a concert that was not only faithful to but also celebratory of the composer. It was such a pleasure to have this performance rescheduled after all this time because it was an absolute joy to watch and to hear.