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PROGRAM NOTES: Itzhak Perlman, violin & Emanuel Ax, piano

by Eric Bromberger

Sonata in C Major for Piano and Violin, K.296 (1778)

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

In the fall of 1777 Mozart and his mother set out on a long trip which the family hoped would finally land the 21-year-old composer a position worthy of his talents (father Leopold could not get free of his obligations in Salzburg and so remained behind). After a brief stopover in Munich, they arrived in Mannheim in October for a five-month stay. Here Mozart was impressed by the superb Mannheim orchestra, wrote several works for flute, and finally learned–to his dismay–that there was no possibility of a position for him in that city. Just before he left for Paris, Mozart became interested in writing sonatas for violin and keyboard and quickly wrote seven of them: the Sonata in C Major on this program was composed on March 11, 1778, three days before his departure. In Paris, Mozart had six of these sonatas published, but he held back the Sonata in C Major and did not publish it until three years later, shortly after his arrival in Vienna.

This sonata has always been a favorite. Audiences like it because Mozart frames a genuinely expressive slow movement with two outer movements full of fire. Violinists like it because it is so much fun to play. Scholars like it because it is so clearly a transitional work: where most of the Mannheim sonatas were in two-movement form, here Mozart writes in full three-movement form. Previous sonatas (including Mozart’s own) had essentially been keyboard sonatas with violin accompaniment: the violin can be eliminated from these sonatas with almost no loss of music content. But an acute reviewer in Vienna recognized the increasingly important role of the violin in this music, describing it as “Very brilliant and suited to the instrument. At the same time the accompaniment of the violin is so artfully combined with the clavier part that both instruments are kept constantly on the alert; so that these sonatas require just as skillful a player on the violin as on the clavier.”

The Sonata in C Major rings with the spirit and sweep which that key always seemed to evoke from Mozart. The very opening has been compared to a march, with the piano’s triplet turn snapping the music forward. Quickly the instruments are answering each other, and the music rides forward breathlessly on the piano’s sparkling runs. The piano has the delicate second subject as the violin vigorously accompanies, and Mozart offers a repeat of both exposition and development. Especially effective is the coda, where the jaunty spirit of the opening march propels the music to its energetic close.

Alfred Einstein has noted that Mozart took the main theme of the Andante sostenuto from the aria “Dolci aurette” by Johann Christian Bach. Again the piano leads, but at the center section the violin takes up the melody, and on a series of graceful turns leads it through unexpected keys full of the expressive harmonic shading that marks Mozart’s mature music. Rather than opting for a literal return of the opening section, Mozart offers a coda that gradually dissolves into silence. The finale returns to the spirit of the opening movement. It is the expected rondo, but Mozart ingeniously builds some of the contrasting episodes on variants of the main theme as the sonata drives to its spirited close.

Violin Sonata No. 1 in A Major, Opus 13 (1875)

Born May 13, 1845, Pamiers, France
Died November 4, 1924, Paris

One of Fauré’s students, the composer Florent Schmitt, described his teacher as an “unintentional, unwitting revolutionary.” The term “revolutionary” hardly seems to apply to a composer best-known for his gentle Requiem, songs, and chamber works. But while Fauré was no heaven-storming radical bent on undoing the past, his seemingly-quiet music reveals enough rhythmic, harmonic, and melodic surprises to justify Schmitt’s claim. The Violin Sonata in A Major, written in the summer of 1876 while Fauré was vacationing in Normandy, is dedicated to his friend, the violinist Paul Viardot. Following its first performance, the sonata was praised by Fauré’s teacher Saint-Saëns for its “formal novelty, quest, refinement of modulation, curious sonorities, use of the most unexpected rhythms . . . charm [and] . . . the most unexpected touches of boldness.” This is strong praise, but close examination of the sonata shows that Saint-Saëns was right.

One of the most interesting features of the opening Allegro molto occurs in the accompaniment, which is awash in a constant flow of eighth-notes. The first theme appears immediately in the piano, and already that instrument is weaving the filigree of accompanying eighth-notes that will shimmer throughout this movement: one of the challenges for performers is to provide tonal variety within this continual rustle of sound. The movement is in sonata form, and the descending second theme, introduced by the violin, is accompanied by a murmur of triplets from the piano. The movement concludes on a fiery restatement of its opening theme.

Distinguishing the Andante is its rhythmic pulse: a 9/8 meter throbs throughout the movement, though Fauré varies its effect by syncopating the accents within the measure. The third movement, a scherzo marked Allegro vivo, goes like a rocket. Fauré chooses not the expected triple meter of the traditional scherzo but a time signature of 2/8, an extremely short rhythmic unit, particularly when his metronome marking asks for 152 quarter-notes per minute. He further complicates the rhythm by writing in quite short phrases, so that the effect is of short phrases rapidly spit out, then syncopated by sharp off-beats. A lovely, graceful trio gives way to the opening material, and the movement suddenly vanishes in a shower of pizzicato notes.

The tempo marking for the finale--Allegro quasi presto–seems to suggest a movement similar to the third, but despite its rapid tempo the last movement flows easily and majestically. Or at least it seems to, for here Fauré complicates matters harmonically. The piano opens in the home key–A major–but the violin seems always to prefer that key’s relative minor, F-sharp minor, and the resulting harmonic uncertainty continues throughout the movement until the sonata ends in unequivocal A major.

To emphasize this sonata’s originality may have the unhappy effect of making the music sound cerebral, interesting only for its technical novelty. That is hardly the case. Fauré’s Sonata in A Major is one of the loveliest violin sonatas of the late nineteenth century, full of melodic, graceful, and haunting music.

Violin Sonata in E-flat Major, Opus 18 (1887)

Born June 11, 1864, Munich
Died September 8, 1949, Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany

The Violin Sonata came at a pivotal point in Richard Strauss’ career. He wrote it in 1887-8, when he was only 24 and just beginning work on the symphonic poem Don Juan. The success of Don Juan would lead Strauss to concentrate on the symphonic poem and later on opera; the Violin Sonata, in fact, was his final piece of chamber music. Coming at so important an intersection in his career, the Violin Sonata shows features of both the world Strauss was leaving and the world he was about to enter. In its structure and harmonic language, the sonata looks back to the classical tradition of Brahms and Schumann, but in its dramatic scope and the sheer panache of the writing, it looks ahead to the symphonic poems.

Not all listeners have found this combination convincing, and some have questioned whether Strauss’ Violin Sonata, full of volcanic fury and dense textures, is chamber music at all. Strauss’ biographer Norman Del Mar notes that “the piano part resembles nothing so strongly as a Liszt Piano Concerto, while the violin line . . . rather suggests a full body of strings.” The fusion of styles in Strauss’ Violin Sonata can be jarring, but this is nevertheless brilliant, exciting music.

Strauss played both piano and violin, and the writing for the two instruments is virtuosic. The piano opens the Allegro, ma non troppo, and its first figure–immediately picked up by the violin–contains the rhythmic cell that will animate the entire movement: a sixteenth-note pickup leading into a triplet. This figure, full of the rhythmic snap so typical of Strauss’ tone poems, recurs throughout the movement. The second theme soars through a range of two-and-a-half octaves, while the third–marked appassionato–climbs into the violin’s highest register. This sonata-form movement, marked by an exceedingly active development, closes on a restatement of the first idea.

The Andante cantabile was written after the outer movements were completed and published separately under the title Improvisation. It is in ABA form, with an opening section that has reminded many of Mendelssohn’s Songs Without Words. The interior sequence is impassioned, with the violin line riding high above shimmering arpeggios of 64th-notes in the piano; Strauss quotes Schubert’s song Erlkönig in the turbulent middle section and the slow movement of Beethoven’s “Pathétique” Sonata in the coda.

Nowhere does the transitional nature of this sonata appear more clearly than at the opening of the finale. After an Andante introduction that sounds as if it might have been written by Brahms, the first theme rockets upward at the Allegro, sounding very much like the great upward rush of orchestral sound at the beginning of Don Juan, written at almost the same time. The finale is much in the manner of the opening movement, with an espressivo second theme, a soaring third, and a superheated development. The coda is a graceful and imaginative extension of the opening theme.