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PROGRAM NOTES: Josef Špaček, violin & Miroslev Sereka, piano

by Eric Bromberger

Chaconne from the Partita No. 2 in D Minor for Unaccompanied Violin, BWV 1004 (1720)

Born March 21, 1685, Eisenach
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.

Myths, Opus 30 (1915)

Born October 3, 1882, Tymoszówska
Died March 29, 1937, Lausanne

World War I forced Szymanowski to remain in his native city of Tymoszówska in Poland, and there he composed prodigiously: the Symphony No. 3, Violin Concerto No. 1, and numerous songs, cantatas, and piano pieces all date from the first years of the war. Now in his early thirties, Szymanowski had only recently thrown off the influence of Wagner and Strauss to forge his own style, a style that grew in large measure from his exploration of Sicily and North Africa and from his new awareness of ancient cultures. Musically, this meant a style characterized by great attention to instrumental color, busy textures, and an expressionism that can verge on intoxicated ecstasy.

Szymanowski composed several works for violin and piano during this period, among them his three Myths, Opus 30 in 1915. Szymanowski had fallen in love with classical antiquity, and each of the three movements–The Fountain of Arethusa, Narcissus, and Dryads and Pan–is based on a different Greek myth. Arethusa was a nymph loved by both Artemis and the river god Alpheus. Bathing in a river, she was forced to flee underwater to the island Ortygia to escape Alpheus; on that island, Artemis transformed her into a fountain, but Alpheus followed, was himself transformed into a river, and so was united with Arethusa at last. Szymanowski makes no attempt to cast this myth in a “classical” style but instead sets The Fountain of Arethusa in a shimmering, post-impressionistic musical language. This is a display-piece for both instruments, from the delicate piano introduction (clearly the sound of the fountain) through the writing for violin, which has a sort of fantastic tonal opulence, soaring high in its range, slipping into passages played entirely in harmonics, and leaping between an extroverted brilliance and a reflective lyricism. The Fountain of Arethusa has become one of Szymanowski’s most popular works.

Narcissus was loved by Echo, but he was so consumed with himself that he rejected her; she in turn caused him to fall in love with his own reflection in a pool, where he withered away and was transformed into a flower. Szymanowski casts his Narcissus in a rondo-like form, with the violin’s principal melody returning in different keys and guises.

Dryads were tree-nymphs (the most famous of them was Euridice, wife of Orpheus), and Pan the god of fields, forests, and flocks. Pan pursued the nymph Syrinx, who fled to the river Ladon and prayed to be turned into a reed; her prayer was granted, and Pan cut the reed and from it made his pipes. Szymanowski’s setting of this tale is notable for its brilliant writing for violin: Dryads and Pan offers the violinist a cadenza (rare in chamber music) and features quarter-tones and harmonics used to imitate the sound of Pan’s flute. Szymanowski wrote Myths for the Polish violin virtuoso Paul Kochanski, and it is dedicated to Kochanksi’s wife Sofia.

Caprice (After a Study in Form of a Waltz of Saint-Saëns, Opus 52, No. 6) (1900)

Born July 16, 1858, Liège
Died May 12, 1931, Brussels

Saint-Saëns began to play the piano at the age of two and quickly turned into a prodigy of breathtaking achievements: at age ten, following a concert at which he played Beethoven and Mozart piano concertos, he offered to perform any Beethoven sonata as an encore–by memory. He began composing for the piano at age three, and his earliest surviving music for that instrument dates from 1843, when he was eight; there followed a great deal more music for piano, with his final work appearing in 1921, when he was 86. These pieces are mostly short (significantly, there are no sonatas among them), and they are often in dance forms.

In 1877, when he was 42, Saint-Saëns wrote a series of studies for solo piano, which he called Six Etudes and published as his Opus 52. The last of these etudes is titled Caprice (After a Study in the Form of a Waltz). Some years later, the great Belgian violinist-composer Eugene Ysaÿe made a transcription of this Caprice for violin and piano, and in the process created one of the great virtuoso pieces for violinists–Ysaÿe played this Caprice with great success throughout his career. In its original form, the Caprice is daunting enough for pianists, but Ysaÿe’s transcription is a textbook of virtuoso violin technique: it demands rapid passages in fingered octaves, flying spiccato double-stops, great leaps, left-hand pizzicatos, sustained writing in the violin’s highest register, double-stopped tremolandi, and so on. The Caprice begins in the character of dance music (the opening is marked Allegro di valse), but across the sustained span of this demanding work the music gradually accelerates to a knock-out close.

Sonata for Solo Violin in D Major, Opus 115 (1947)

Born April 23, 1891, Sontsovka
Died March 5, 1953, Moscow

Prokofiev composed this unusual (and little-known) sonata in 1947. This was a difficult moment for the composer, then 56 years old. Two years earlier he had fallen and suffered a serious concussion, and he would never fully recover his strength or his health. During the winter of 1946-47 Prokofiev completed his Sixth Symphony, one of his finest scores, and then composed this brief sonata for solo violin. Sonatas for unaccompanied violin are not by themselves unusual–Bach, Ysayë, and Bartók have all written notable examples–but the distinctive title of Prokofiev’s sonata points to a larger purpose. He intended that this sonata might be played by a single violinist–or by any number of violinists, all playing in unison. Violin students in Russia often played in groups as part of their training, and Prokofiev intended that this sonata might be used for that purpose.

But those students would have to be awfully good violinists, because for all its simplicity and straightforwardness, the Sonata in D Major can be very difficult indeed. Prokofiev does not write the complex contrapuntal music that other composers have often made a feature of their solo violin sonatas–the writing here is entirely linear–but this music is full of technical hurdles: great leaps, rapid string-crossings, quick chording, spiccato passages that alternate with sustained lyric lines. It might be a sonic treat to hear twenty very good violinists play this sonata, but it is most often performed today by a single violinist.

The sonata is in three brief movements. The opening Moderato is in sonata form, built on the athletic opening idea and a lyric second subject that Prokofiev marks both piano and dolce. That contrast between saucy energy and a beautiful lyricism is a feature of some of Prokofiev’s finest music, and this attractive movement alternates busy passagework with more restrained and reflective interludes. The Andante dolce is in theme-and-variation form. The theme is heard at the very beginning (Prokofiev stresses that it should be espressivo), and five sharply-contrasted variations follow. Prokofiev marks the final movement Con brio, and it is indeed full of brio. This finale contrasts its brisk opening episode with an even faster second section marked Allegro precipitato, and after all this energy the sonata concludes on a rush of triplets up the scale and a resounding D.

Violin Sonata No. 1 in D Minor, Opus 75 (1885)

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

Saint-Saëns wrote his First Violin Sonata in 1885. At age 50, he was at the height of his powers. In that same year he wrote his Wedding Cake Waltz, and the following year he would write two of his most famous works: the “Organ” Symphony and the Carnival of the Animals. Although Saint-Saëns did not play the violin, he clearly understood the instrument–already he had written three violin concertos and the famous Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso; the Havanaise would follow two years later.

The structure of the sonata is unusual. It has four movements, but the first and second are connected, as are the third and fourth, dividing the sonata into two extended parts. Saint-Saëns’ marking for the opening movement–Allegro agitato–is important, for this truly is agitated music. Beneath its quiet surface, the movement feels constantly restless. Its opening theme, a rocking tune for violin, alternates meters, slipping between 6/8 and 9/8; perhaps some of the music’s air of restlessness comes from its failure to settle into a constant meter. The lyric second idea–a long, falling melody for violin–brings some relief, and the dramatic development treats both these themes. While the second movement is marked Adagio, it shares the restless mood of the first. The piano has the quiet main theme, but the music seems to be in continuous motion before coming to a quiet close.

The agreeable Allegretto moderato is the sonata’s scherzo. It dances gracefully, skittering easily between G major and G minor. At the center section, the violin has a haunting chorale tune over quietly-cascading piano arpeggios; as the movement comes to its close, Saint-Saëns skillfully twines together the chorale and the dancing opening theme and presents them simultaneously. Out of this calm, the concluding Allegro molto suddenly explodes–the violin takes off on the flurry of sixteenth-notes that will propel the finale on its dynamic way. This is by far the most extroverted of the movements, and it holds a number of surprises: a declamatory second theme high in the violin’s register and later a brief reminiscence of the lyric second theme of the opening movement. At the end, Saint-Saëns brings back the rush of sixteenth-notes and the sonata races to a close so brilliant that one almost expects to see sparks flying through the hall.