MOZART Sonata for Piano and Violin in A Major, K. 526
FRANCK Violin Sonata in A Major
BACH Chaconne from the Partita No. 2 in D Minor for the Unaccompanied Violin
SAINT-SAËNS Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso, Opus 28
WIENIAWSKI Variations on an Original Theme in A Major, Opus 15

Program Notes by Eric Bromberger

Sonata for Piano and Violin in A Major, K.526

Born January 27, 1756, Salzburg
Died December 5, 1791, Vienna

Mozart spent the summer of 1787 composing Don Giovanni, but he interrupted his work on the opera several times to write shorter works.  On August 10, he completed the serenade Eine kleine Nachtmusik, and exactly two weeks later he finished the Violin Sonata in A Major, K.526.  It was to be the last full-scale violin sonata he wrote–over the remaining four years of his life he wrote only one more violin sonata, a small work intended for beginners and compiled of music from keyboard sonatas.  The Sonata in A Major, universally acclaimed one of Mozart’s finest violin sonatas, is a true virtuoso work.  Mozart’s early violin sonatas had essentially been keyboard sonatas with violin accompaniment, but now the two instruments are equal partners, and Mozart divides the musical interest evenly between them.

Mozart marks the opening movement Molto allegro, but the impression is not so much of speed as of the smooth progress of the music on its flowing 6/8 meter.  This easy flow is achieved, however, only through crisp ensemble work by the players, who must make their quick and difficult interchanges sound effortless.

By contrast, the Andante seems slow and tranquil.  It is indeed at the “walking” tempo that Andante implies, but with its major-minor alternations and expressive chromatic themes, this music becomes more and more moving as it proceeds.  Mozart biographer Alfred Einstein makes some staggering claims for this movement, believing that it “attains an equilibrium of art and soul that is as if God the Father had brought all motion everywhere to a halt for a moment so that man might savor the bitter sweetness of existence.”

After the calm close of the slow movement, the Presto finale seethes with energy.  The very beginning establishes a pattern that runs throughout this music: the violin and pianist’s left hand are in unison with a sturdy syncopated theme, while the pianist’s right hand races ahead brilliantly.  The finale is a real tour de force (was some of the ensemble writing from Don Giovanni running through Mozart’s head as he wrote this music?), and once again there are quick exchanges between the two instruments, brilliant passagework, and non-stop energy.  Mozart makes virtuoso demands on both performers, and the writing seems calculated to leave the pianist in particular completely exhausted at the end.

Violin Sonata in A Major

Born December 10, 1822, Liege
Died November 8, 1890, Paris

Composed in 1886, the Violin Sonata in A Major is one of the finest examples of Franck’s use of cyclic form, a technique he had adapted from his friend Franz Liszt, in which themes from one movement are transformed and used over subsequent movements.  The Violin Sonata is a particularly ingenious instance of this technique: virtually the entire sonata is derived from the quiet and unassuming opening of the first movement, which then evolves endlessly across the sonata.  Even when a new theme seems to arrive, it will gradually be revealed as a subtle variant of one already heard.

The piano’s quiet fragmented chords at the beginning of the Allegretto ben moderato suggest a theme-shape that the violin takes over as it enters: this will be the thematic cell of the entire sonata.  The piano has a more animated second subject (it takes on the shape of the germinal theme as its proceeds), but the gently-rocking violin figure from the opening dominates this movement, and Franck reminds the performers constantly to play molto dolce, sempre dolce, dolcissimo.

The mood changes completely at the fiery second movement, marked passionato, and some critics have gone so far as to claim that this Allegro is the true first movement and that the opening Allegretto should be regarded as an introduction to this movement.  In any case, this movement contrasts its blazing opening with more lyric episodes, and listeners will detect the original theme-shape flowing through some of these.

The Recitativo–Fantasia is the most original movement in the sonata.  The piano’s quiet introduction seems at first a re-visiting of the germinal theme, though it is–ingeniously–a variant of the passionato opening of the second movement.  The violin makes its entrance with an improvisation-like passage (this is the fantasia of the title), and the entire movement is quite free in both structure and expression: moments of whimsy alternate with passionate outbursts.

After the expressive freedom of the third movement, the finale restores order with pristine clarity: it is a canon in octaves, with one voice following the other at the interval of a measure.  The stately canon theme, marked dolce cantabile, is a direct descendant of the sonata’s opening theme, and as this movement proceeds it recalls thematic material from earlier movements.  Gradually, the music takes on unexpected power and drives to a massive coda and a thunderous close.

Franck wrote this sonata for his fellow Belgian, the great violinist Eugene Ysaÿe, who gave the première in Brussels in November 1886.  The composer Vincent D’Indy recalled that première: “The violin and piano sonata was performed . . . in one of the rooms of the Museum of Modern Painting at Brussels.  The seance, which began at three o’clock, had been very long, and it was rapidly growing dark.  After the first Allegretto of the sonata, the performers could scarcely read the music.  Now the official regulations forbade any light whatever in rooms which contained paintings.  Even the striking of a match would have been matter for offense.  The public was about to be asked to leave, but the audience, already full of enthusiasm, refused to budge.  Then Ysaÿe was heard to strike his music stand with his bow, exclaiming [to the pianist], “Allons!  Allons!” [Let’s go!] And then, unheard-of marvel, the two artists, plunged in gloom . . . performed the last three movements from memory, with a fire and passion the more astounding to the listeners in that there was an absence of all externals which could enhance the performance.  Music, wondrous and alone, held sovereign sway in the darkness of night.”

Chaconne from the Partita No. 2 in D Minor for Unaccompanied Violin

Born March 21, 1685, Eisenach, Germany
Died July 28, 1750, Leipzig

This Chaconne is of course THE Chaconne, one of the most famous and difficult pieces ever written for the violin. Bach composed it around 1720 as the final movement of his Partita No. 2 in D Minor for Unaccompanied Violin.  The first four movements present the expected partita sequence–Allemande, Courante, Sarabande, and Gigue–but then Bach springs a surprise: the last movement is a chaconne longer that the first four movements combined.  The Chaconne offers some of the most intense music Bach ever wrote, and it has worked its spell on musicians everywhere for the last two-and-a-half centuries.  Beyond the countless recordings for violin, it is currently available in performances by guitar, cello, lute, and viola, as well as in piano transcriptions by Brahms, Busoni, and Raff.

A chaconne is one of the most disciplined forms in music: it is built on a repeating ground bass in triple meter over which a melodic line is varied.  A chaconne demands great skill from a performer under any circumstances, but it becomes unbelievably complex on the unaccompanied violin, which must simultaneously suggest the ground bass and project the melodic variations above it.  Even with the curved bow of Bach’s day, some of this music borders on the unplayable, and it is more difficult still on the modern violin, with its more rounded bridge and concave bow.

This makes Bach’s Chaconne sound like supremely cerebral music–and it is–but the wonder is that this music manages to be so expressive at the same time.  The four-bar ground bass repeats 64 times during the quarter-hour span of the Chaconne, and over it Bach spins out gloriously varied music, all the while keeping these variations firmly anchored on the ground bass. At the center section, Bach moves into D major, and here the music relaxes a little, content to sing happily for awhile; after the calm nobility of this interlude, the quiet return to D minor sounds almost disconsolate.  Bach drives the Chaconne to a great climax and a restatement of the ground bass at the close.

Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso, Opus 28

Born October 9, 1835, Paris
Died December 16, 1921, Algiers

Saint-Saëns was a piano virtuoso of the first order, a musician so naturally gifted that after a recital at the age of ten, he is reported to have offered to play any of Beethoven’s thirty-two piano sonatas as an encore–from memory.  Yet it is true that some of Saint-Saëns’ finest music is for the violin, an instrument he did not play; apparently his feel for that instrument was instinctive.  In addition to the Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso, his Havanaise and Third Violin Concerto are important parts of the repertory of every concert violinist.  Saint-Saëns wrote both the Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso and the concerto for the famous Spanish violinist Pablo de Sarasate, one of the greatest of the nineteenth-century violin virtuosos.

The Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso dates from 1870, when Saint-Saëns was 35.  That title is a mouthful, but it describes the music accurately: a brief introduction gives way to a spirited rondo much influenced by Spanish melodies and rhythms (hence, capricious).  The accompaniment’s pizzicato chords at the very beginning suggest the sound of the strummed guitar, and over them the soloist enters with a melody that Saint-Saëns marks “melancholy.”  This poised beginning gradually rushes ahead, and on a series of trills and arabesques the violin sails directly into the rondo section.  The sharply-inflected main theme is one of those perfect violin melodies: powerful, melodic, and full of fire.  The entire rondo is built on this theme, though Saint-Saëns provides some nicely-contrasted interludes along the way.  One of these, marked con morbidezza (“with softness or gentleness”), is a lilting, dark melody, and Saint-Saëns quickly has the soloist performing it in complicated double-stops.

The Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso is a real virtuoso display piece.  Except for a few outbursts, the accompaniment is limited to simple chordal accompaniment, and the soloist provides all the themes, the color, and the rhythmic excitement.  This is music of enormous difficulty, but it is also written very idiomatically for the violin, and at the end of the rondo a Più allegro coda provides a virtuoso close to a work that will gladden the hearts of audiences (and violinists) for centuries to come.

Variations on an Original Theme in A Major, Opus 15

Born July 10, 1835, Lublin, Poland
Died March 31, 1880, Moscow

In 1872, violinist Henryk Wieniawski and pianist Anton Rubinstein embarked on a concert tour of the United States.  It was a killer: they gave 215 joint concerts in 239 days, sometimes giving two or three performances on the same day.  That tour took them as far from New York as New Orleans, and it made them a great deal of money: Rubinstein took $46,000 with him back to Russia.  But the tour was physically devastating, and to compound its difficulties the two artists began to feud and would go weeks at a time without speaking.  The exhausted Rubinstein returned to Russia at the end of their scheduled tour, but Wieniawski chose to remain in this country for another year, and during that time he gave concerts all the way to the West Coast.  He performed in San Francisco in 1874, and he was enough taken with the city to write music commemorating his visit.  Earlier, he had composed other pieces in honor of cities: a mazurka for violin and piano titled Souvenir de Posen and a work for violin and orchestra called Souvenir de Moscou.  In San Francisco he composed a piece he called Reminiscences of San Francisco.

The Variations on an Original Theme had been written two decades earlier, in 1854, when the composer was only 19, and it offers precisely that combination of tunefulness and blistering virtuosity that made Wieniawski so popular a performer.  The Variations open with an extended introduction marked Maestoso in which all alone the violin lays out a grand statement of the theme, or–more accurately–a variation of the theme; it is soon joined by the piano for the rest of the rather extroverted introduction.  When the theme itself finally appears, it sounds almost innocent in its simplicity–Wieniawski marks this statement con grazia–and there follow three extended variations that allow a violinist to show his mettle: these feature extended passages in artificial harmonics and passages written in thirds, octaves, and tenths (Wieniawski must have had huge hands).  The Finale is a fast waltz, and Wieniawski rounds matters off with a coda marked Allegro vivace.

Program notes by Eric Bromberger