WOLFGANG AMADEUS MOZART Violin Sonata in B-flat major, K. 454
Mozart occupies a high spot in the pantheon of truly great composes, yet during his foreshortened but famously productive lifetime he was even better known to the public as a superb pianist. Renowned less for his technique (which was exemplary) than for his improvisatory powers, his legacy of more than two dozen piano concertos, plus copious numbers of solo sonatas and incidental works, reinforced the association of Mozart with the piano. Yet — no surprise — he was also a master violinist (and violist, which role he preferred to fill when performing string quartets). Before his move to Vienna in 1781, he served as concertmaster with the court orchestra in Salzburg.
It was natural, given the above, that he wrote frequently and fluently for the two instruments in combination. Perhaps because of his role as a piano soloist, he emphasized the keyboard’s superiority in many of his early duo, terming them “sonatas for piano with violin ad libitum.” The later works — including the Sonata for Violin and Piano, K. 454 — he termed sonatas for piano with violin accompaniment, still putting the keyboard first yet according the violinist equivalent status. In comparison with many of the earlier sonatas, K. 454 demands a string player of consummate skill.
The opening movement starts with an unhurried and stately Largo shared by the two players; it quickly retreats into a tender and lyrically rocking statement that pauses before launching into a swiftly flowing Allegro in which conversational give-and-take alternates with passages of parallel lines. The overall mood is clearly positive throughout this engaging movement.
An Andante follows in which a relatively spare piano accompaniment supports the soaring violin line. Mozart achieves a masterly blend of cantabile singing and virtuosity. An episode in the minor darkens the emotional level while maintaining enchanting lyricism. Though the piano has its moments of prominence throughout the movement the violin remains dominant voice.
As if to stress the importance of the violin Mozart opens the concluding Allegretto with a skipping statement first uttered by the stringed instrument. The intervening episodes sandwiched between reprises of the main theme give Mozart the opportunity to give expression to his penchant for unexpected and delectable melodic twists and turns. The movement ends in a brief virtuosic flurry.
FRANZ SCHUBERT Rondeau brilliant in B minor, Op. 70, D. 895
Franz Schubert died in Vienna, city of his birth, in 1828, at the age of 31 years. Had Beethoven or Haydn died as young their places in history might well have been seriously altered, for neither composer had mastered his art as fully as had Schubert by the time he reached his twenties.
He was an able violinist and an even better, though by no means virtuosic, pianist. He had grown up, as it were, within a family circle steeped in chamber music. Along with his father and several siblings, young Franz had played and written all manner of quartets and other intimate combinations of instruments.
Only two of Schubert’s chamber works were published during his lifetime, the popular Piano Trio No. 2 in E-flat major, and the “Rondeau brillant” for Violin and Piano. Composed for the Czech violinist Josef Slavik (likened by Chopin to a “second Paganini”) and pianist Karl von Bocklet, the title of the “Rondeau brillant” accurately suggests the work’s virtuosic demands and opportunities — the work was composed for the Czech violinist Josef Slavik (likened by Chopin to a "second Paganini") and pianist Karl von Bocklet. As an early reviewer noted, “both the pianoforte and the fiddle require a practiced artist who must be prepared for passages that have not by any means attained their right of citizenship by endless use, but betoken a succession of new and inspired ideas.”
As musical as Schubert was, he probably would have had a difficult time playing either part without simplifying things, as he reportedly did when playing the piano part to his famous song, "Der Erlkönig".
The two-part “Rondeau brilliant” begins with an Andante that sets syncopated piano chords against mercurial flights of fancy from the violin. A middle section marked dolce is inward and even haunting. The actual rondo incorporates finger-challenging passagework up and down the violin’s neck, and frequent unexpected jaunts into remote keys, all balanced by typically luxuriant Schubertian lyricism. Periodic recollections of thematic material from the Andante recur before a spirited coda.
CLAUDE DEBUSSY Violin Sonata No. 3 in G minor
Synchronous with the great artistic flowering of fin de siècle Paris, Claude Debussy espoused a musical language that rejected narrative tendencies of tonal harmony with its goal-oriented assumptions. Chords were no longer to function harmonically. Dissonances no longer served to allow relaxation into consonance. By absorbing non-Western scales from Asian and Pacific Island cultures, he broke away from our seemingly immutable system of minor and major scales. Whole-tone and pentatonic scales facilitated the breakdown of the system of harmony developed since the Renaissance.
Though Debussy wrote in all genres, his chamber canon consists of his stunningly original string quartet of 1893, a staple since its premiere, followed by nearly a quarter-century of silence until shortly before his painful death from colon cancer in 1918. The outbreak of World War I had greatly disturbed him, adding fire to his already fierce anti-German views on music (long after a youthful embrace of ardent Wagnerism).
As Debussy was ill from cancer to participate as a combatant, life seemed especially bleak to him. Yet following surgery in 1915, he felt physically and spiritually rejuvenated — eager to meet the challenge of renewed composition.
With more optimism than realism, he set out to produce six varied chamber works. Sadly, lasting health failed to materialize. Through sheer determination he was able to complete two superb chamber works in 1915 — a sonata for cello and piano and another for flute, viola and harp. Weakened by the effort, he needed a year to recover his failing strength. In October 1916 he felt sound enough to resume composition and began working on his Sonata in G minor for Violin and Piano. By February 1917 he had completed the first two movements but had difficulty pinning down the finale, which he completed just in time for the premiere — the very day, actually.
A palpable sense of melancholy infuses the first movement, Allegro vivo. Classic French understatement blends with Eastern harmony. The sounds evoked are kaleidoscopic, reflecting his still fresh memories of hearing the Javanese gamelan at the Paris Exhibition, while incorporating a new world of sounds ushered in by 20th-century technology. Eerie arabesques for the violin soar above shifting sonorities from the keyboard. At times, sustained violin tones are punctuated by a continuo-like line in the piano's middle registers.
The ensuing Intermède opens with effervescent and virtuosic phrases from the violin. Debussy's unrivalled ear for color is apparent in the weird and wonderful sounds emanating from the stringed instrument. Pizzicatos dance above spiky asides from the piano.
Material from the opening movement kicks off the Finale before a new animated motive pushes the music forward. The rapidly fluttering violin line has been likened to the purposive flutter of the butterfly. Though cast in three separate movements, the constant shifting of textures and moods imparts a dreamy ambience to the whole work, as if it were in reality one seamless tripartite work — a characteristic of much 20th-century music. Like the mysterious man who wrote it, the sonata abounds in light and shadow, and draws its unity from the unfailing sense of decorative beauty that never failed the composer.
CAMILLE SAINT-SAËNS Violin Sonata No. 1 in D minor, Op. 75
Early on, Saint-Saëns adopted an esthetic that eerily presaged Stravinsky’s assertion that music can express nothing, that its “meaning” lies exclusively within its formal self. Saint-Saëns, orphaned early and brought up by uncaring relatives, never married, nor even achieved much intimacy with his fellow human beings. To a degree, his esthetic derived from the barrenness of his personal life, though in its rejection of the expressive potential of music, he was also reacting in French fashion to the excesses of German Romanticism.
But whatever his psychological damage, he was a consummately gifted musician with talent and intelligence in many fields. An esteemed pianist and composer of great formal ingenuity, he wrote with facility in all genres from grand opera to solo recital pieces and virtually everything else in between. Chamber music figures prominently in his output, including the Violin Sonata No. 1 in D minor, one of five Saint-Saëns wrote for the combination of violin and piano.
The sonata consists of two distinct parts, each with two movements linked by a transition. The Allegro agitato bears two themes, the first an anxious tune alternating between 6/8 and 9/8, and the second a lyrical, somewhat bucolic melody over a stern bass line. The Adagio opens with a song-like gesture that left to its own devices could have lapsed into sentimentality, but the canny composer leavens matters with a playful section buoyed by virtuosic trills and runs. A graceful and carefree Allegretto moderato serves as third movement and first half of the second part of the work. A single theme grows out of a sequence of irregular phrases before yielding to a peaceful dialogue between the two instruments. A series of warm and expressive chords lead to the dance-like finale, which uses several themes heard previously. The exuberance and brilliance of this movement is in well-planned contrast to the circumspect demeanor that characterizes much of the sonata.
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