Charles Ives was one of music's great utopians and dreamers. He did not feel burdened by the art form's lofty history and had the audacity to wonder whether its illustrious past was just a prelude to an even brighter future. "Music may yet be unborn," he wrote. "Perhaps no music has ever been written or heard."
That said, Ives also had a tremendous admiration for Beethoven, calling his symphonies "perfect truths." In Ives's "Concord" Sonata, a sprawling masterwork that channels the expansive vision of the New England transcendentalists, Ives quotes from the opening of Beethoven's Fifth again and again. For Ives, Beethoven was almost like an honorary transcendentalist, sharing a mystical vision of human freedom. Picture Emerson with a secret pen pal, or Thoreau with a moody roommate at Walden.
Given all of these connections, Ives and Beethoven make a natural concert pairing. But few pianists have the fearlessness to do what Jeremy Denk pulled off at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum on Sunday afternoon: that is, to perform the "Concord" Sonata and Beethoven's epic "Hammerklavier" Sonata back to back.
Denk sees these two works, separated by about a century, as kindred spirits in revolution, and as pianistic bookends of the Romantic era. Hearing them in tandem made for a richly satisfying program, especially with the intelligence, sensitivity, and commitment of Denk's playing.
The Ives came first, in all of its glorious sonic anarchy. Denk seemed to revel in this music's colliding extremes, its dizzying jump cuts from the sublime to the earthy, and its giant stew of high and low influences suggesting a kind of postmodernism long before its time. The pianist sought to imbue each strand of this music with its own distinct texture and character. The effect did not so much tame the chaos of the first two movements - "Emerson" and "Hawthorne" - but made them inviting to wade into. The tender strains of the third movement, "The Alcotts," were rendered with glowing tone, warm and wistful.
Hearing the "Hammerklavier" directly after the Ives made Beethoven's work feel freshly rambunctious and daring, and Denk's boldly conceived, sharply etched account brought those qualities to the fore. The pianist also seemed keen on finding moments of playful cross-pollination between the two works, as when he dispatched episodes in Beethoven's Scherzo with a kind of winking Ivesian mischief. But more often, as with the massive fugue in the final movement of the "Hammerklavier," Beethoven needed no help from Ives in firming up his revolutionary credentials. What Stravinsky said about the "Grosse Fuge" applies here too: This is music that is always contemporary.
Jeremy Eichler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.