* Concert XII – Thursday, February 27, 2020 *
Sonata for Violin and Piano in G minor D. 385 Franz Schubert (1816)
I. Allegro Giusto
III. Menuetto: Allegro vivace – Trio
IV. Allegro Moderator
The third and last in the 1816 set of three violin sonatas by Schubert, this work in G minor, like the second work in A minor, maintains the simpler façade of these sonatas compared with those of Beethoven but retains something of a portentous quality beneath its surface given by its minor key sonority. There’s a delicious dissonance, for example, in the piano part at the heart of the opening melody— one that firmly stamps this music as Schubert rather than Mozart. There’s also plenty of Schubertian lyricism which we hear throughout but particularly in the central slow movement. After a playful Mozartian minuet for the third movement, the rondo finale spins some bel canto gold from a melody simple yet sweet in minor key that modulates a few times before arriving at a rousing finish.
Fantasy for violin and piano in C major D. 934 Franz Schubert (1826)
I. Andante molto
IV. Tempo I – Allegro vivace
In 1826, some six years after his previous violin sonatas, Schubert wrote his Rondo Brillante in B minor for violin and piano D. 895, a more difficult work than his previous sonatas and designed to show off the skills of the Czech virtuoso Josef Slavik. At the end of the following year, after completing one of his late masterpieces, the song cycle Winterreise, Schubert wrote the Fantasy in C major. Both musically and technically, the Fantasy was on a whole new level compared with his earlier violin works. Although marked in four movements, the Fantasy can be seen as either in one movement or in seven sections depending on how you count them. The unusual structure consists in essence of a series of contrasting but linked sections built around a set of variations on one of Schubert’s popular songs: Sei mir gegrüsst (‘I greet you’), which in turn was based on a poem by Friedrich Rückert. The song’s somewhat deceptive title hides the fact that it’s about the deep pain of severed love, something that Schubert acutely conveyed in the emotionally charged writing of both his original setting and in the version in this Fantasy.
In the slow introduction with which the Fantasy begins, the piano plays a shimmering sequence of tremolandos while the violin floats above the melee, performing a lovely sequence of arabesques. After a short cadenza for both violin and piano, we are led into the faster Allegretto section where the mistiness of the opening is blown away by the rhythmic clarity of a new theme in A minor. This section eventually leads without break into the heart of the work, the reworked version of Sei mir gegrüsst. The theme is presented with the violin playing the role of singer and the piano providing the richly textured harmony, then we are led into a series of bravura variations which bring to mind the virtuosity of Paganini. As a bridge into the final movement, Schubert reprises measures from the shimmering opening of the Fantasy before launching us into a lively upbeat Allegro vivace episode that gradually becomes more tempestuous which then subsides into one more variation on the song. This yields to the final tumultuous Presto section that leads headlong with piano and violin rising on arpeggios to C somewhere high up in the heavens.
Despite the sheer virtuosity of this work for both violinist and pianist and its hugely abundant musicality, the Viennese audience who first heard it were dismissive, with one critic commenting that it “occupied rather too much of the time the Viennese are prepared to devote to the pleasures of the mind.” Today, of course, we can indulge as much as we like in the pleasures of the mind and despair a little at how foolish so many people were for not recognizing the full genius of Schubert during the short time that he was alive.
Sonata for Violin and Piano in F major K. 547 Mozart (1788)
I. Andante cantabile
III. Andane con variazioni
The last of Mozart’s sonatas for violin and keyboard, this work is something of a curious throwback especially coming after the last three great sonatas that did so much to put both instruments on a level playing field. It comes surprisingly from one of Mozart’s most fertile periods when he wrote his last three symphonies, the piano trio in E major, K. 542, and the divertimento for string trio, K. 563, all of which were written in rapid succession in the summer of 1788.
Apparently in need of some fast cash, Mozart turned to the lucrative market of technically undemanding music for amateurs, and on 26 June 1788 Mozart entered his famous Piano Sonata in C major K. 545 into his catalogue of works, listing it as ‘A little Piano Sonata for beginners’. This remains a remarkable work that somehow manages to combine ease of playability with profound musical originality. The Violin Sonata in F major, completed on 10 July, was described by Mozart in very similar terms: ‘A little Piano Sonata for beginners with a violin’. While it does not achieve the musical heights of the piano sonata, it is still a charming and attractive work and although the violin part is rather simple, the piano part is certainly not!
In three movements, the order is unlike any other for Mozart with a fast expansive middle movement flanked by two slower movements. The opening Andante cantabile is in the form of a rondo in which there is significant dialogue between both instruments. The keyboard dominates the latter two movements, however, and in the final movement, which is in the form of theme and set of six variations, the violin even drops out entirely in the fifth F minor variation. Nevertheless, the violin comes into the spotlight in the fourth variation and it returns, albeit in a supportive role, in the last variation. A final irony about this work and its famous companion Piano Sonata, given their origins, is that neither were published within the composer’s lifetime.
Sonata No. 3 for Cello and Piano in A major Op. 69 Beethoven (1803)
I. Allegro ma non tanto
II. Scherzo. Allegro molto
III. Adagio cantabile – Allegro vivace
Written on and off between 1806 and 1808, the third and most famous of Beethoven’s cello sonatas came more than a decade after his Op. 5 sonatas, placing it in his middle period around the same time as his fifth and sixth symphonies, one of the most productive periods in the composer’s life. The style of composition is less dense than that of the early sonatas, perhaps with Beethoven having gained greater confidence in balancing the two instruments. Indeed, the cellist Steven Isserlis declares the work to be the first cello sonata in history to give the two instruments equal importance.
The work begins with a grand and lyrical opening melody on the solo cello that the piano then picks up and restates. The sound becomes more animated and agitated but then makes way for a new and equally impressive theme that also then evolves into a more agitated form. Enigmatically, Beethoven gave this cello sonata the heading “Inter Lacrimas et Luctum”, “Amid Tears and Sorrow”. While there are some profoundly tender moments in this work and outbursts of great passion, it is so full of rich melody that one cannot help but feel warmed and inspired by Beethoven’s continual inventiveness. The movement reaches its biggest climax when both instruments play the opening theme together in the concluding coda.
The ensuing scherzo opens with a catchy minor key melody full of syncopated off-beats and the cello soaring to new heights. Beethoven alternates this theme with a major key passage where the cello accompanies the piano. While the sonata lacks a fully independent slow movement, Beethoven begins the last movement with a slow introduction marked Adagio cantabile which despite being only 18 bars in length, provides a passage of gentle repose, particularly for the cello. The Allegro vivace that follows makes for an optimistic virtuosic finale tempered by passages of lyrical contemplation. The work ends on a rousing note of spiritual healing that cannot fail to leave the listener feeling elevated.
* Concert XIII – Thursday, March 26, 2020 *
Sonata for Violin and Keyboard in F major No. 7 Joseph Haydn (1799)
I. Allegro moderato
III. Vivace assai
Like all but one of Haydn’s violin sonatas, No. 7 in F major is a transcription of another work, in this case the String Quartet in F Major, Op. 77, No. 2, which was Haydn’s final full string quartet. Haydn wrote as many as 67 string quartets, a genre he more or less invented and elevated to an extraordinary level that perhaps only Mozart and Beethoven surpassed. Like those two composers, whose later works demonstrated a continually evolving level of sophistication and mastery, Haydn’s powers of inventiveness increased over the years. Thus the F major String Quartet from which this violin sonata was derived is a very fine work in its own right. So what are we to make of this version for violin and piano? It’s not clear why Haydn would have made the arrangement or whether he was even responsible. The violin and piano version also eliminates the original’s minuet and trio. Nevertheless, given the strange dearth of real violin sonatas from this great Viennese composer, the transcription still stands well as a substitute. After the graceful opening movement, the middle movement begins with an attractive melody played by piano solo. The violin then enters and the rest of the movement unfolds in what is, in effect, a series of variations with the main theme kept intact but carried by modulations in the supporting voices. The last movement too, like the central movement, consists of basically just one theme but dressed in multiple guises.
Sonata No. 10 for Violin and Piano in G major Op. 96 Beethoven (1812)
I. Allegro moderato
II. Adagio espressivo
III. Scherzo: Allegro – Trio
IV. Poco allegretto
Beethoven’s last sonata for violin and piano was written at the tail end of his middle period and already showed some of the hallmarks of his later style including a greater density of ideas, more extensive excursions that at times sounded semi-improvised and had a stronger sense of the sonata being an integrated whole. Dedicated to his close friend and loyal patron, the Archduke Rudolph, the work was first performed by the Archduke on piano and Pierre Rode, who at his peak was considered to be one of the finest violinists of his day. While Beethoven wrote the work with Rode and the Archduke in mind, it seems that he was less than satisfied with Rode’s playing and had to make some accommodation for it, something in his pursuit of musical idealism he was usually loath to do. In a letter to the Archduke he wrote: “In our finales we like to have fairly noisy passages but Rode does not care for them – and so I have been rather hampered.” Notwithstanding this, Beethoven still mustered a healthy dose of pizzazz for the last movement. Like the A major sonata Op 30 No 1, it consists of another theme and set of variations, but here the variations wander off into more remote areas while Beethoven’s more integrated approach to the form packages them without break as a seamless whole.
The graceful first movement is notable for the way it flowers from its brief opening phrase featuring four notes and a trill articulated by the solo violin. From this seed, arpeggiated figures emerge and evolve and are passed back and forth between violin and piano. The second movement is another one of Beethoven’s ethereal slow movements of heart-stopping beauty. The piano begins with a solemn hymn that the violin picks up in a new but equally serene guise. Using the symphonic template that Beethoven pioneered for his larger sonatas, Op. 96 includes a scherzo movement cast in a minor key that after a trio section, returns and then wittily concludes via a coda in the major mode.
In a review of the first performance of this sonata, one critic praised the Archduke’s excellent playing but was somewhat less kind about Rode’s performance, and said this about the sonata: “Nothing more can be said of this work than it leaves behind all [Beethoven’s] other works of this kind for it surpasses almost all of them in popularity, wit, and spirit.” The critic was wrong in assessing the work’s popularity for it remains perhaps less popular than the Spring Sonata and the Kreutzer. But this sonata is widely considered to be his greatest and most sophisticated of the ten violin sonatas, making for a fitting conclusion to this series of the complete Beethoven sonatas.
Sonata No. 5 for Cello and Piano in D major Op. 102 No. 2 Beethoven (1812-1817)
I. Allegro con brio
II. Adagio con molto sentimento d’affetto – Attacca
III. Allegro – Allegro fugato
The two Cello Sonatas of Op. 102 were both written between 1812 and 1817 for the cellist Joseph Linke and dedicated to Countess Marie von Erdődy, both close friends of Beethoven. In 1808 Linke had joined the string quartet of Ignaz Schuppanzigh, famous for their performances of Beethoven’s groundbreaking works in this medium. The long gestation period of these cello sonatas probably reflects not only Beethoven’s increasing struggles with his loss of hearing and his health but also with his increasingly condensed and demanding new approach to composition adopted in his third or late period. While the second sonata of op. 102 departs less from traditional forms than the first – it is in three movements, fast, slow and fast – the last movement adopts what became one of his signature trademarks we often associate with late Beethoven: the use of fugal forms, something he took to new extremes in the Hammerklavier Piano Sonata and The Grosse Fugue String Quartet.
Unlike the elegiac opening of the Op. 102 No 1, the first movement opens with what seems like an energetically robust idea full of forward momentum but we soon realize it’s going to proceed in fits and starts as Beethoven defies expectations at almost every turn. In contrast the slow movement is a steady albeit dark hymn in which the cello and piano plummet into new spiritual depths. The second movement is actually the first full length slow movement in any of Beethoven’s cello sonatas although it leads into the third movement almost with break with a series of harmonic shifts. The shock of the last movement fugato, with its sometimes harsh dissonances, is all the more radical because of the slow hymn that came before it, but here we witness the one seed that germinated into the extraordinary fugues of his later works.
About the author: Julian Brown is a writer and violinist based in Mountain View, California. Born in the UK, he lived for many years in London and has performed in both London and the San Francisco Bay Area. He is the co-founder of the Cal Arte Ensemble, which performs numerous chamber concerts a year in the Bay Area, aiming to make great music available to a wider audience. He also serves as concertmaster for several orchestras including the Cambrian Symphony and the Palo Alto Philharmonic. For more information see https://www.julianbrown.xyz.