Sonata in F major for violin and piano (1838)
Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847)
We have Yehudi Menuhin to thank for the violin sonata that opens Messrs. Kutik and Myer’s program. Mendelssohn worked on it in late spring of 1838, concurrently with the String Quartets of Op. 44 and the Cello Sonata, Op.45. The Sonata was intended for his friend Ferdinand David, who had been concertmaster of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra since February 1836. (David is the same violinist for whom Mendelssohn would eventually complete his splendid Violin Concerto.) He finished a manuscript draft by June 1838; however, within months Mendelssohn had developed misgivings about its quality, and undertook revisions to the first movement. In January 1839 he abandoned it, dismissing the piece in a letter to Karl Klingemann as a “wretched sonata.” He shelved the manuscript, which remained unpublished during Mendelssohn’s lifetime.
Somehow the score survived the rest of the 19th century and two world wars. In the early 1950s, Yehudi Menuhin was entrusted with the June 1838 autograph and pages of Mendelssohn’s revisions to the first movement. Conflating the two versions, Menhuin edited the sonata for the German publishing house of C. F. Peters, which issued it in 1953.
While the F major Sonata has not entrenched itself in the violin/piano literature to the degree that the duo sonatas of Beethoven, Brahms, or even Schumann have, it occupies a significant position in the romantic literature. Mendelssohn was an accomplished violinist as well as a virtuoso pianist, and understood how to write idiomatically for both instruments. He also had a keen command of both counterpoint and formal organization, and a gift for balancing material equally between two star players. That gift is gloriously apparent in this sonata.
Piano introduces the Allegro vivace in a bold, affirming first theme. When the violin enters, Mendelssohn’s piano writing becomes more like his Songs Without Words - like: graceful arpeggiation, with fluid support for the violin. The piano is like a premier danseur to the violin’s prima ballerina.
Mendelssohn’s music seems designed to show off the agility of the violin and its capacity for brilliance. His second theme, in the expected key of C major, features an unusual modulation to A-flat major. His coda brings back echoes of the development section and escalates bravura elements in the keyboard part.
The Adagio is the standout movement of this sonata, introducing an emotional extravagance not always present in mature Mendelssohn. Both tempo and mood change completely: relaxed, pensive, and elegiac without crossing the line into sentimentality. A central episode in minor mode adds drama, and in his coda Mendelssohn again combines his principal thematic material with echoes of that episode.
The Mendelssohn of the Midsummer Night’s Dream Overture and Scherzo is much in evidence in the finale, a rondo reminiscent of Carl Maria von Weber. A constant stream of sixteenth notes launches the Allegro vivace in perpetual motion, but it is the rapid handoff between players that gives this music its fleetness and buoyance. Animated dialogue sparkles between violinist and pianist, with skillful intertwining of the themes. Successful performance demands superb ensemble and technical polish. The Sonata is an overlooked romantic masterpiece that deserves to be heard more frequently.
Baal Shem: Three Pictures of Chassidic Life (1923)
Ernest Bloch (1880-1959)
Swiss-born Ernest Bloch has traditionally been categorized as a Jewish composer. It is true that he acknowledged, "It is the Jewish soul that interests me, the complex, glowing, agitated soul that I feel vibrating through the Bible." But to limit his music to interpretation in terms of that description does a sad injustice to his rich musical legacy. A prominent conductor and educator as well as composer, he served as director of both the Cleveland Institute of Music and the San Francisco Conservatory, and taught at University of California - Berkeley before he retired. He is best known for his early opera Macbeth (1910), and the rhapsody for cello and orchestra known as Schelomo (1916). He wrote some delightful and important works for smaller forces as well, including five string quartets.
Baal Shem is a three movement suite for violin and piano. Bloch composed it during the five years that Bloch lived in Cleveland, a particularly rich period in his life for chamber music. The title comes from an historical figure from the first half of the 18th century. Born Israel of Miedziboz in Poland, he founded the mystical Chassidic movement within Judaism. During his lifetime he became known as Baal Shem, "the wonderworker by means of invocations in the name of God."
Bloch’s Suite opens with Vidui [Contrition], a heartfelt melody that evokes the sinner returning to God. One has the feeling of peering directly into his soul. The second movement, Nigún [Improvisation], has become well known independent of the other two sections. Hymns without words have a long history in Jewish music; Nigún is an example that borders on the ecstatic. The suite closes with Simchas Torah [Rejoicing], commemorating Moses’s handing of the torch to the people of Israel. Uplifting and energetic, the finale alternates Eastern European dance rhythms with a hymn of praise, providing a affirmative musical conclusion. Baal Shem was so successful during Bloch's lifetime that he arranged it for violin and full orchestra in 1939.
Claude Debussy (1862-1918)
Arranged by Jascha Heifetz (1899-1987) Debussy was among the most literary of composers, moving among Paris’ elite intellectual circles. After 1887, he numbered many artists and writers among his friends, including the poet Stéphane Mallarmé. He wrote poetry himself, including some verse that he set to music. He was well acquainted with the poetry of Mallarmé, Baudelaire, Régnier and Louÿs, Banville, Gautier, Musset, Verlaine, and Leconte de Lisle. All their texts appear in his songs. His earliest surviving mélodie - the French analogue to the German Lied - is from 1876; he continued writing songs until 1915. When he composed “Beau soir,” Debussy was enrolled at the Paris Conservatoire. Ironically, he was failing Émile Durand’s course in harmony.
For a song of barely three minutes dating from its composer’s teenage years, “Beau soir” has taken on disproportionate celebrity. Debussy’s original version for voice and piano sets a poem by Paul Bourget, a French novelist and critic.
The words invite the listener to savor a lovely evening, whose vivid sunset is reflected in the rose tint of the river. The message is to enjoy life and its beauties while one is young, for the poet has a brief premonition of death. “Beau soir” remains a languorous confection when sung, but it was Jascha Heifetz’s luscious transcription for violin and piano that turned it into a staple of the violin’s salon literature.
Sonata in A for Violin and Piano
César Franck (1822-1890)
In the violin/piano repertoire, this splendid work ranks high. So secure a place does it hold on the programs of virtuoso violinists that musicians speak its title with the initial capitals already in verbal place: The Franck Sonata. One of the lengthiest pieces of its kind, it can intimidate by its sheer size even before one has begun to assimilate Franck’s musical message. But when we take the time to savor the improvisatory, questioning, tentative ideas, then listen to the skillful manner in which Franck planned and navigated this remarkable work with such refined musical language, our reaction shifts to one of wonderment.
César Franck composed the sonata for the prominent Belgian violin virtuoso Eugène Ysaÿe (1858-1931) and the French pianist Léontine Marie Bordes-Pène (1858-1924). One of the better kept secrets about this remarkable sonata is its astonishing difficulty for the pianist as well as the violinist.
The opening Allegretto, a modified sonata form, has a yearning and restrained feeling, its musical vocabulary tentative and chromatic. Franck’s opening idea introduces a falling third motive from which the entire movement grows. In fact, the interval of the third proves essential to all four movements, and is a strong structural binder contributing to the cyclic unity of the sonata.
The ensuing Allegro is a piano showpiece in D minor that pulls out all the virtuoso stops. Aggressive and splendidly pianistic, this movement is magnificently written for both instruments. Franck’s genius lies in his ability to write a virtuosic keyboard part that permits the violin to sing forth clearly without being overpowered. Again highly chromatic, the music surges forward, this time fired by passion rather than by questioning. But the basic character of the musical material — improvisatory and harmonically unresolved until the final cadence — is remarkably like that in the opening movement. Franck’s treatment of the material may differ dramatically, but his ideas remain consistent and unified.
The third movement returns to the inquisitive, diffident mode of the first, even freer in its queries. Entitled Recitativo-Fantasia, it embodies the flexibility and drama of the operatic stage, melded to the virtuosic self-confidence of the skilled improviser. Psychologically, this movement provides a necessary bridge, relieving the rage of the second movement and clearing a path for the transparent serenity of the finale. Among Franck’s more daring ploys here is his shift from the opening tonality, D minor, to a final cadence in F-sharp minor.
The marvelous A major finale is a free sonata-rondo whose main theme is a delicious, melodious canon. Laurence Davies calls it: . . . a gentle Allegretto upon which most admirers of Franck would be happy to rest all their claims. The canon with which it begins is certainly a perfect example of the composer’s powers, while the principle of interchange between the instruments makes for a real element of flexibility.
The pianist establishes the lead from the first measure, always introducing the new phrase of the canon. Violin is clearly following the leader. Critics of the finale cite the coda, arguing that Franck overemphasized the keyboard at the expense of the violin, which must struggle to be heard amid the clangor of the piano figuration. But what glorious clangor!
Franck’s strong reliance upon traditional sonata structure lends this piece its coherence and strengthens the architecture. Technically, his secure understanding of each instrument’s capabilities allowed him to marry them in music of engaging contrapuntal interest. The emotional appeal of the Franck Sonata--and the real secret to its popularity--lies in the sensual musical language that probes and inquires so gently, then lashes forth with such impetuous abandon. With the Violin Sonata, Franck created a musical apotheosis for the romantic soul.
Tzigane, Concert Rhapsody for Violin and Piano
Maurice Ravel (1875-1937)
During the 1920s, Maurice Ravel was a frequent visitor to England, where he regularly attended musical events of all types. According to his biographer Arbie Orenstein, Tzigane had its origins in, of all the unlikely locations, a private British musicale during a 1922 visit. On the evening in question, the Hungarian violinist Jelly d'Arányi (a grand-niece of the great 19th-century violinist Joseph Joachim) performed Ravel's violin/cello sonata with Hans Kindler. Taken with her playing, the composer asked d'Arányi to perform some Gypsy melodies. She complied, and Ravel grew increasingly absorbed in the unfamiliar scale patterns and compelling rhythms of the Eastern European tradition. Fascinated by what he heard, he encouraged her to continue until the wee hours of the morning. By then, he had resolved to compose a violin work especially for her.
Fully two years later, the piece took final shape. Ravel only completed it only days before d'Arányi premiered it on April 26, 1924. In the interim, he had drawn further inspiration from the virtuoso music of Paganini and Liszt. Tzigane, his synthesis of Gypsy flavor with bravura technique, is a landmark in the violin literature. This work admirably demonstrates his uncanny ability to assimilate and process the musical style of another country, as he had already done so successfully with Spanish music.
Tzigane opens with an extended, dramatic introduction. Ravel’s structure is episodic, as the subtitle "Concert Rhapsody" implies. Despite its dazzling difficulty, the piece is remarkably well written for violin, presenting formidable challenges with pizzicati, quadruple stops, virtuoso figuration, and a concluding perpetual motion clearly related to the finale of Ravel’s Violin Sonata (1923-1927).
Ravel orchestrated Tzigane several months after he completed the original version for violin and piano. In that form, it is the closest he came to composing a violin concerto. He also arranged Tzigane in a fascinating third version employing an early type of prepared piano using an attachment called luthéal, which was intended to make the piano approximate the sound of the cimbalom, a large hammer dulcimer used in Hungarian Gypsy and popular music.
Program Notes by Laurie Shulman ©2017