PROGRAM NOTES: Christian Tetzlaff, violin & Lars Vogt, piano
by Eric Bromberger
Sonata for Piano and Violin in B-flat Major, K.454
WOLFGANG AMADEUS MOZART
Born January 27, 1756, Salzburg
Died December 5, 1791, Vienna
Mozart wrote this sonata in Vienna in April 1784 for a series of concerts given by the violinist Regina Strinasacchi, a twenty-year-old Italian woman. Mozart played the piano at the first performance, which was attended by the emperor, and that occasion produced one of those unbelievable–but apparently quite true–Mozart anecdotes. Rushed for time, Mozart wrote out just the violin part and at the concert set only a blank sheet of paper before him; he then proceeded to play the entire piano part from memory. The manuscript shows the violin part written out in ink. Beneath it, the piano part–written in a different color ink–has been squeezed in later to fit the violin part. Even given Mozart’s extraordinary memory, playing a première from out of thin air is an act of stunning bravado.
It is all the more impressive when one sees how intricate and difficult this score is. Mozart’s early sonatas had been largely piano sonatas with violin accompaniment, and the violin could almost be eliminated with no loss of musical content. But Mozart gradually began to give more of the musical interest to the violin, and one of the glories of the Sonata in B-flat Major is the equal partnership of the two instruments, particularly in their easy exchange of phrases.
The first movement opens with an elegant Largo introduction, and the Allegro erupts after the slow introduction reaches a moment of repose; the development grows easily out of the cadence that ends the exposition. By contrast, the Andante is a long flow of melody. Mozart did not mark this movement cantabile, but he might well have, for it sounds like a long aria for the two instruments, which again share duties evenly. An ornate development leads to the quiet close. The concluding Allegretto opens with one of those seemingly never-ending themes, but almost instantly a melodic second idea occurs, and only when it has passed does one realize that Mozart has derived that idea from the opening. This movement is full of vigor and sweep, much of it propelled by powerful triplet rhythms. Together, the two instruments stamp out the powerful concluding cadence.
One wonders what was going through Mozart’s mind as he stood–before his blank sheet of paper–to acknowledge the applause at that first performance.
Sonata No. 1 for Violin and Piano, Sz.75
Born March 25, 1881, Nagyszentmiklós, Hungary
Died September 26, 1945, New York City
The period of World War I was difficult for Bartók. Musical life throughout Europe had gone dormant, and–depressed by adverse criticism and a failure to find audiences–Bartók had almost stopped composing. But as he approached his fortieth birthday in 1921, his fortunes changed. He had a number of successful premières, Universal Edition agreed to publish his works, and he began to make recital tours as a pianist throughout Europe. He was warmly received by audiences and critics in London, Berlin, Paris, and many other cities.
He also began to hear music he had been unable to hear during the war, in particular the music of Schoenberg. The influence of Schoenberg can be felt in the music Bartók composed in the early 1920s, particularly in its intense chromaticism and expressionistic character. Bartók’s biographer Halsey Stevens has noted that the two violin sonatas, composed in 1921-2, are “farther from traditional standards of tonality than anything else Bartóók wrote.” Bartók was aware of the influences, yet he later insisted that “it is an unmistakable characteristic of my works of that period that they are built upon a tonal base.”
The Violin Sonata No. 1 should be enjoyed as the music of Bartók and not valued for the appearance of influences from other composers. This is very dramatic music, and it is an unusually big sonata–at nearly 35 minutes, it is one of Bartók’s longest compositions. It also makes a splendid sound. Bartók writes entirely different music for the two instruments here, for they share no thematic material: the piano’s music is vertical (chords or arpeggiated chords), while the violin’s is linear–Bartók rarely has it play in doublestops. The score is scrupulously annotated. Bartók specifies exact metronome markings and changes them frequently, minutely gradates dynamics, and achieves a varied sonority: at times the piano is made to sound like the old Hungarian cimbalon or the percussive gamelan. Even individual phrases are shaped exactly. Bartók gives one passage the unique marking risvegliandosi: “waking up.” Perhaps the best way to approach this sonata is to enjoy its sweep, its extraordinary sound, and the drive that propels the music across two huge movements to one of Bartók’s most exciting finales.
The opening movement, aptly titled Allegro appassionato, takes the general shape of sonata form: an exposition that lays out a wealth of themes and brief motifs, an extended development (introduced by quietly-tolling arpeggiated piano chords), and a lengthy recapitulation that brings back the themes not literally but radically transformed. Throughout the movement (and the entire sonata) the writing for both instruments is of a concerto-like virtuosity. The opening of the movement is of unusual harmonic interest. Bartók felt that this sonata was in C-sharp minor, but while the piano seems to begin in that key, the violin enters in C major, and that bitonal clash presages the harmonic ambiguity of the entire sonata. This music is so chromatic that a firm sense of these keys quickly vanishes, and even the conclusion of the sonata states C-sharp minor only ambiguously. The Adagio, in ternary form, opens with a lengthy passage for unaccompanied violin; the quiet opening section gives way to a slower and more ornate middle before the movement concludes with a return of the quiet opening material, once again radically transformed. The finale is a wildly-dancing rondo based on its gypsy-flavored opening idea, a sort of moto perpetuo for violin. Tempo changes are frequent here as Bartók varies the mood with sharply-contrasted episodes.
Composed between October and December 1921, the sonata had its premi&eegrave;re in London on March 24, 1922, by the composer and violinist Jelly d’Aranyi, and they then played it throughout Europe. One might guess that early reviews would have been uncomprehending, but in fact they were quite positive. Bartók’s First Violin Sonata is a massive work–tough, demanding, and uncompromising. It is also some of the most bracing, exhilarating, and exciting music he ever wrote.
Four Pieces, Opus 7
Born December 3, 1883, Vienna
Died September 15, 1945, Mittersill, Austria
Webern wrote the Four Pieces in 1910, a time when composers were thinking big. That same year Mahler completed his 80-minute Ninth Symphony and Stravinsky composed his ballet The Firebird (using what the composer himself called a “wastefully large orchestra”); the following year Schoenberg–Webern’s teacher–would complete his two-hour Gurrelieder. In complete contrast, Webern’s Four Pieces span a total of sixty-two measures: at the age of 27, Webern was already composing with the concentration that would mark his mature music.
Rather than judging this music by the traditional notions of what constitutes music (and finding it wanting), listeners should take these very brief pieces for what they are: extremely concise essays in expression and sonority. Webern is absolutely precise in his instructions to both performers. He specifies the exact tempos he wants (often changing every few measures), shades dynamics with scrupulous care (from fortississimo through pianississimo), and tells the players exactly how he wants passages played: “with the wood of the bow, softly drawn,” “hardly audible,” ‘very symmetrical.” Webern’s extraordinary care makes the Four Pieces music of subtle gradation of rhythm, dynamics, and phrasing.
The first piece (marked “Very slow” and lasting only nine measures) is extremely quiet music. Webern has the violin muted throughout, and the dynamic level is ppp, which is allowed to rise briefly to pp. At the center of this piece, Webern instructs the violinist to play with the wood of the bow as quietly as possible. The second piece (“Quick”) is the longest of the four, lasting twenty-four measures. It is also the most overtly dramatic: there are frequent tempo shifts, and both instruments are quite active: Webern instructs that the violin be bowed, plucked, then bowed with the wood of the bow. The third piece (“Very slow,” lasting fourteen measures) returns to the mood of the first. This is the most quiet of the four, never rising above the dynamic of ppp and closing with the instruction “hardly audible.” The final movement (“Moving,” fifteen measures long) opens dramatically, but Webern soon specifies molto espressivo and zart (“tender”). At the end, marked “Calm,” the piano is instructed to play “very tenderly,” and the violin is told to sound “like a sigh.”
Violin Sonata No. 3 in D Minor, Opus 108
Born May 7, 1833, Hamburg
Died April 3, 1897, Vienna
Brahms spent the summer of 1886 at Lake Thun in Switzerland. He had just completed his Fourth Symphony, and now–in a house from which he had a view of the lake and a magnificent glacier–he turned to chamber music. That summer he completed three chamber works and began the Violin Sonata in D Minor, but he put the sonata aside while he wrote the Zigeunerlieder (“Gypsy Songs”) and Double Concerto for Violin and Cello, grumbling that writing for stringed instruments should be left to “someone who understands fiddles better than I do.” He returned to Lake Thun and completed his final violin sonata in the summer of 1888.
Despite Brahms’ customary self-deprecation, his writing for stringed instruments could be very convincing, and the Third Violin Sonata is brilliant music–not in the sense of being flashy but in the fusion of complex technique and passionate expression that marks Brahms’ finest music. The violin’s soaring, gypsy-like main theme at the opening of the Allegro is so haunting that it is easy to miss the remarkable piano accompaniment: far below, the piano’s quiet syncopated octaves move ominously forward, generating much of the music’s tension. Piano alone has the second theme, with the violin quickly picking it up and soaring into its highest register. The development of these two ideas is disciplined and ingenious: in the piano’s lowest register Brahms sets a pedal A and lets it pound a steady quarter-note pulse for nearly 50 unbroken measures–beneath the powerful thematic development, the pedal notes hammer a tonal center (the dominant) insistently into the listener’s ear. Its energy finally spent, this movement gradually dissolves on fragments of the violin’s opening melody.
The heartfelt Adagio consists of a long-spanned melody (built on short metric units–the marking is 3/8) that develops by repetition; the music rises in intensity until the double-stopped violin soars high above the piano, then falls back to end peacefully. Brahms titled the third movement Un poco presto e con sentimento, though the particular sentiment he had in mind remains uncertain. In any case, this shadowy, quicksilvery movement is based on echo effects as bits of theme are tossed between the two instruments. The movement comes to a shimmering close: piano arpeggios spill downward, and the music vanishes in two quick strokes.
By contrast, the Presto agitato finale hammers along a pounding 6/8 meter. The movement is aptly titled: this is agitated music, restless and driven. At moments it sounds frankly symphonic, as if the music demands the resources of a full symphony orchestra to project its furious character properly. Brahms marks the violin’s thematic entrance passionato, but he needn’t have bothered–that character is amply clear from the music itself. Even the noble second theme, first announced by the piano, does little to dispel the driven quality of this music. The complex development presents the performers with difficult problems of ensemble, and the very ending feels cataclysmic: the music slows, then suddenly rips forward to the cascading smashes of sound that bring this sonata to its powerful close.