* Concert X – Thursday, October 24, 2019 *
Sonata for Violin and Piano in A minor D. 385 – Franz Schubert (1816)
I. Allegro Moderato
III. Menuetto: Allegro
If the first of Schubert’s 1816 trilogy of violin and piano sonatas, the D major Sonata D. 384 seemed a trifle lightweight, the second sonata is altogether a more expansive and serious affair. It begins with keyboard alone but is soon joined by the violin playing a harmonically extraordinary sequence of notes that jumps between the lowest and the top strings. As Abram Loft commented in his book Violin and Keyboard: The duo repertoire about this passage: “a strange whiff of serial music begins to fill the air!” The notes eventually resolve themselves into more conventional harmonies but even so, the effect of this introduction is quite an eye opener! The rest of the movement is more accustomed while lyrically absorbing.
The alluring F major Andante that follows has been likened to the minuet finale of Mozart’s F major Violin Sonata, K. 377 though Schubert wanders off on some adventurous harmonic explorations halfway through. The lively third movement, a short Menuetto in the key of D minor, serves as a preface for the more substantial rondo finale which features a quietly melancholic opening theme. Stormier episodes in which the instruments exchange rising scales intercept before we are brought to a sudden halt: the plaintive melody reappears one final time and then with no resolution to the bleakness in sight two power chords announce the end.
Sonata for Violin and Piano in E flat major K. 481 – Mozart (1785)
I. Molto Allegro
Much less is known about the origins of this Sonata in E flat than the Sonata in B flat K. 454. It appears to have been completed in Vienna in December 1785, just four days before Mozart’s famous Piano Concerto No. 23 in the same key of E flat K. 482 was written. Although he had done much to make the two instruments more as equal partners compared with his early sonatas, K. 482 was still published as a “sonata for fortepiano, or harpsichord, with violin accompaniment.”
This framing is perhaps reflected in the first two movements where the piano presents the main ideas first, though in each case, the violin gets its opportunity to be in the spotlight later. The development section in the first movement is notable for featuring a four-note motif that sounds like a pre-echo of the tune used in the finale of Mozart’s Jupiter Symphony No. 41 in C major K. 551 written in 1788. The slow movement is also notable for its surprising harmonic excursions that entail violin and piano being briefly notated in different key signatures.
The last movement Allegretto is in the form of theme and variations. The theme itself is rather simple and stated boldly by both violin and piano in octaves with a single-line accompaniment in the pianist’s left hand. The first variation is a much more lyrical version that gives the violin a special moment of glory. Later variations present some considerable contrasts rendering the movement, according to biographer Alfred Einstein, as one of Mozart’s most Beethovenian. Keen listeners may also notice in the final variation of this Violin Sonata a hint at the hunting theme used in the last movement of the contemporaneous E flat Piano Concerto, quoted in the movie Amadeus.
Sonata No. 9 for Violin and Piano in A major Op. 47 “Kreutzer” – Beethoven (1803)
I. Adagio sostenuto – Presto
II. Andante con Variazioni
It’s hard to think of a more deserving recipient for the honour of having one’s name immortalized by a Beethoven sonata than the 19th century French violinist and composer Rudolphe Kreutzer. The “Kreutzer”, perhaps the most famous of Beethoven’s violin sonatas, was commissioned by a different violinist – George Bridgetower, a man of Euro-African descent with whom Beethoven was originally great friends. Beethoven even added a flippant but well intended dedication “Sonata per un mulattico lunatico”. Inspired by the man’s outstanding playing, Beethoven wrote this sonata in, as he declared in the work’s subtitle, “a concertante style – almost as a concerto”. In order to finish the work, Beethoven incorporated a finale he had originally written for an earlier violin sonata but had then discarded. The first performance given by Bridgetower and the composer took place so close to the work’s completion that Bridgetower was obliged to play some parts by looking over Beethoven’s shoulder. The concert, nevertheless, was a tremendous success.
Unfortunately for Bridgetower, he and the composer had a falling-out. While the two were drinking, Bridgetower apparently insulted a woman whom Beethoven regarded as a good friend. Enraged, Beethoven removed the dedication of the piece, and re-dedicated it instead to Rodolphe Kreutzer, who was considered one of the finest violinists of the day. Yet, ironically, Kreutzer, who met the composer just once, never cared for Beethoven’s music and remarked that the sonata, which he decided was too difficult to play, was “outrageously unintelligible”. Leo Tolstoy’s novella The Kreutzer Sonata published in 1889 may have also helped to consolidate the reputation of the name and one wonders whether he would have done the same for “The Bridgetower Sonata”. Kreutzer’s chief claim to fame without the benefit of Beethoven’s dedication remains to be his 42 Études or Capriccios, still much used by violinists today as a pedagogical tool.
The Sonata begins with an imposing slow introduction in A major in which the solo violin sets the stage with a sequence of double, triple, and quadruple stopped chords soon answered vigorously by the piano. The introduction leads to the movement’s main Presto cast in A minor, a dynamic torrent of melodic material wrapped in vigorously virtuosic style. Often there is a sense in which each instrument does not merely answer back but actually tries to outdo the other. The slow movement in F major features an elegant theme and an impressively expansive set of four variations, two of which are both full of challenging yet beautiful filigree and ornament. The last movement, another lively Presto, though it was rescued from an earlier sonata, fits this sonata remarkably well. Beethoven had decided the movement was too brilliant for its original destination, so this transplant actually proved felicitous. The main theme of the movement consists of a repeated phrase of long-short-long-short notes that is typical of a tarantella dance form. It’s one Beethoven builds into a mighty edifice that concludes with a rousing climax, a suitable testament to the composer’s so-called heroic middle period.
* Concert XI – Tuesday, November 19, 2019 *
Duo for Violin and Piano in A major D. 574 – Franz Schubert (1817)
I. Allegro moderato
II. Scherzo: Presto
IV. Allegro Vivace
Composed in 1817, a year after the three works dubiously labelled as Sonatinas, the title “Duo” of this work rather than “Sonata” represents the composer’s now overt mission to equalise the importance of both instruments. Finally banished was the idea of these works being for “keyboard with violin accompaniment.” Even so, like many of Schubert works the Duo was not published until after his death – in fact, this work had to wait until 1851 before it saw the light of day.
The first movement opens amiably with a gentle rocking rhythm on the piano over which the violin plays an extended song without words. There is a carefree quality to this beginning that is interrupted by more dramatic interludes where the emotional heat is elevated. However, generally the movement maintains a relaxed composure, albeit one that makes more technical demands on the players than Schubert’s previous violin sonatas.
The second movement scherzo, gives the impression that Schubert has by now taken on board at least some of what Beethoven had been composing for violin and piano duo. The opening Presto has some of the energy, pizzazz, and wit we associate with Beethoven’s own scherzos while the contrasting central trio is much more relaxed though full of chromatic adventure. The slow movement Andante begins with a simple theme that, after some harmonic searching, is interrupted by some dramatic outbursts but eventually returns to its opening calm. In the short last movement Allegro vivace, we return to the energy of the Scherzo particularly in its opening gestures of upward arpeggios, chords, leaps, and runs which alternate between each instrument. Some more relaxed genial passages intervene before we are brought to the final flourish.
Sonata for Violin and Piano in A major K. 526 – Mozart (1787)
I. Molto Allegro
This work, the second to last of Mozart’s violin sonatas, is one of his finest creations in this genre. It belongs to his last three great sonatas that started with the B-flat K. 454 of 1784 and continued with the E-flat violin Sonata from December 1785. The Sonata in A for Violin and Keyboard, K. 526, was written in 1787 and appears in the Köchel catalogue, which represents a chronological listing of Mozart’s works, between two of the composer’s best known works, the string serenade Eine kleine Nachtmusik (K. 525) and the opera Don Giovanni (K. 527). In fact, Mozart delayed the completion of his opera, despite pressing deadlines, to compose this sonata and its companion serenade.
Technically one of Mozart’s most challenging violin sonatas, this work returns to a more even assignment of importance between the two instruments than was the case in the E-flat Sonata with the interweaving of the parts achieving a similar level to that found in the B-flat Sonata. The first movement is a lively Molto allegro in 6/8, in which piano and violin lines overlap and intersect in rhythmically engaging ways. The slow movement is a beautiful, tender dialogue that achieves a new level of hymn-like intimacy as it wanders through a series of impressive harmonic changes. After this respite, the finale Presto, reignites the sense of momentum reminiscent of the opening movement with its virtuoso runs and sense of perpetual motion in the piano but it is by no means lacking in warmth with the lovely melodies and a particularly intense violin theme in the central section.
According to one theory the finale was based on a sonata by Carl Friedrich Abel, a composer and gamba player famous in his own day, whom Mozart had met as a child in London. Abel died two months before this sonata was written and Mozart may have been writing this final movement as a tribute.
Sonata No. 4 for Cello and Piano in C major Op. 102 No. 1 – Beethoven (1812-1817)
I. Andante – Allegro Vivace
II. Adagio – Tempo D’andante – Allegro Vivace
Though there’s not really a strict boundary, the two cello sonatas published as Opus 102, are regarded along with the preceding piano sonata Op. 101, as the beginning of Beethoven’s visionary third or “late” period, characterised by increasingly complex structures that broke away from the formal models of the past. Composed between the end of 1812 and 1817, Beethoven was now profoundly deaf and increasingly beset by ailments that had slowed down his productivity considerably. His deafness caused him to withdraw from society and a symptom of that may be found in the profound intimacy of these last two cello sonatas.
His abandonment of conventional forms is particularly evident in the first of the two Opus 102 sonatas, which Beethoven entitled a “Free Sonata.” One unusual feature is that the work is in two fast movements each beginning with a slow introduction. The first introduction starts in C major featuring an elegiac untroubled theme but then in the Allegro vivace, the key suddenly switches to the relative minor, A minor, and the mood becomes much more turbulent.
The slow Adagio to the second movement serves more as an Intermezzo like the brief middle movement of the “Waldstein” Piano Sonata Op. 53. In another shake up of usual formalities, Beethoven reprises the theme from the first movement introduction in an almost ecstatic form before launching into the main part of the second movement that reverts to the tonic key of C major. Leading up to the fast Allegro vivace the piano plays a short fragment of what will be the main theme and the cello follows with the same fragment in imitation. Once the faster section is underway, everything feels like it’s rollicking along nicely but then Beethoven stops the music abruptly and after a brief pause, deploys the same stop-and-start routine with cello and piano never quite agreeing on who is playing the fragment first. It’s a delightfully comical touch enhanced by the bagpipe drone effect Beethoven gives to the cello, with the piano playing what could half pass for a Scottish dance on top. For the ending, Beethoven cannot resist more humour and brings these ideas to a gradual slowdown with the music fading to silence, and then a sudden forte flourish to bring the house down. As a result, audiences were initially baffled by this sonata, with one critic declaring “It is so unusual no one can understand it on first hearing.”