Jeremeny Denk's CD of Charles Ives's two piano sonatas has shown up on several end-of-the-year top-classical lists, and, being a big Ives aficionado, I am grateful to Denk for all his work on behalf of this composer, who seems to be rediscovered every few years, only to fall back into obscurity. The following is my review of the CD, which I have also posted at Amazon:
Jeremy Denk has become perhaps our most visible and articulate champion of the music of Charles Ives, which is all to the good. I very much enjoyed his performance, with Soovin Kim, of the composer's four violin sonatas in Philadelphia a few years ago, and so, when I heard he had recorded the two piano sonatas, I was excited. I asked for and received the CD for Christmas, and having listened to it, I have to say it's a disappointment. A big one. I have almost a dozen recordings of the Concord, fewer of the First Sonata, and Denk had not replaced any of them in my affections. He seems to think Ives is an American Liszt (as if we needed one), and he goes in for romantic bombast, banging away in the forte sections while smoothing over the mood shifts and jokes with lots of pedal. The result is aggressive in a way that is often mistaken for Ivesian, but it's also homogenized. The Emerson movement suffers in particular, losing much of its grandeur. The Thoreau movement, by contrast, is overly misty, like a parody of Debussy. (The flute at the end is so distant and washed out that its entrance makes hardly any impression at all.) Ives's famous wit has been suppressed, too, and his homespun elements lack flavor: the hymns aren't very hymnlike, the rags aren't very raggy, and you can't march to the marches. And for the very first time in my life, the First Sonata left me with a headache. This is Ives for people who would rather be listening to something else. (One blogger wrote of this CD, "You don't get many reminders that Ives was a contemporary of Rachmaninoff and Busoni." And this is a good thing?)
Give Denk credit, though. He managed to do something no other performer has ever done: he made me question whether I have been wrong about the value of Ives's music for so many years. Needing reassurance, I went back to Alan Mandel, Nina Deutsch and William Masselos, and gratefully, I found it in them. I don't dislike this recording, exactly — I could never really dislike any committed performance of Ives — but I disagree with it, and I disagree also with one of the other reviewers here. Definitive, as Ives himself might say, "it ain't."
To wash the taste out of my mouth, as it were, I've pushed by CD acquisition scheduled forward and ordered Donna Coleman's CD of the Concord. I listened to a couple excerpts at Amazon, and it sounds promising.