Vilde Frang, violin
Michail Lifits, piano
Kennedy Center Terrace Theater
Sonata in F Major, K.376
In June 1781, at the age of 25, Mozart broke away from the two authority figures in his life–his father and Archbishop Colloredo of Salzburg–and set out to establish himself in Vienna. His first task was to make himself financially independent, and to that end he took students and performed widely in Vienna. But Mozart wished to succeed as a composer, and the sources of income for a composer were more complex. A composer could make significant income from an opera commission, but Mozart was also aware of a quite different market: the increasing number of amateur musicians in Vienna who needed music to perform. His first publication in Vienna was written not on commission from a member of the nobility but for talented amateur performers: during the summer of 1781, while he was at work on The Abduction from the Seraglio, Mozart wrote four sonatas for keyboard and violin, combined them with two sonatas written earlier, and published the set that November as his Opus 2.
These six sonatas attracted immediate attention, and one early reviewer wrote about them at length: “These sonatas are the only ones of this kind. Rich in new ideas and in evidences of the great musical genius of their author. 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.” This reviewer makes at an important point. Earlier sonatas for this combination of instruments had essentially been keyboard sonatas with the accompaniment of violin, and in fact Mozart’s description on the title page of the new set seems to preserve that identity: “Six Sonatas for Clavier or Pianoforte, with the Accompaniment of a Violin.” The reviewer, however, notes that these are in fact duo-sonatas (“the only ones of this kind”) and that the musical duties are divided evenly here (“require just as skillful a player on the violin as on the clavier”). The piano may retain a measure of primacy in these sonatas, but Mozart is well on his ways to re-defining the violin sonata and giving the violin a much more important role.
The Allegro opens with three bright chords, and the whole movement is characterized by energy and thrust. The piano introduces the more restrained second idea, and all seems set for a standard sonata-form movement, but Mozart springs a surprise at the development. Rather than developing these themes, he instead seizes on a brief turn-figure from the end of the exposition and builds the development on this. He brings back his principal themes in the recapitulation and closes the movement out quietly on the turn-figure. The Andante is remarkable for the range of its sounds, for it seems in constant, murmuring motion. Some of this is the sound of quietly-pulsing sixteenths that runs through the accompaniment, but Mozart also has both instruments trilling at length here. The concluding Rondo gets off to an elegant start (Mozart’s marking grazioso is exactly right), but this attractive tune is interrupted by a number of varied and substantial episodes before the movement makes its way to the nicely-understated close.
(Program note by Eric Bromberger)
Sonata No. 1 in A Major, Op. 13
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 the 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 19th century, full of melodic, graceful, and haunting music.
(Program note by Eric Bromberger)
Three Hungarian Dances (Nos. 2, 11, 17)
Brahms had a life-long fascination with Hungarian music, which for him meant gypsy music. As a boy in Hamburg, he first encountered it from the refugees fleeing revolutions in Hungary for a new life in America, and he was introduced to gypsy fiddle tunes at the age of 20 while on tour with the Hungarian violinist Eduard Reményi (it was on that tour that Brahms began his lifelong collection of Hungarian folk-tunes). Over a period of years, he wrote a number of what he called Hungarian Dances for piano four-hands and played them for (and with) his friends. He published ten of these in 1869 and another eleven in 1880, and they proved a huge success. There was a ready market for this sort of music that could be played at home by talented amateurs, and these fiery, fun pieces carried Brahms’ name around the world (they also inspired the Slavonic Dances of his friend Antonin Dvorák).
In the Hungarian Dances, Brahms took csardas tunes and–preserving their themes and characteristic freedom–wrote his own music based on them. To his publisher, Brahms described these dances as “genuine gypsy children, which I did not beget, but merely brought up with bread and milk.” It has been pointed out, however, that Brahms did not begin with authentic peasant tunes (which Bartók and Kodály would track down in the 20th century), but with those tunes as they had been spiffed-up for popular consumption by the “gypsy” bands that played in the cafés and on the streetcorners of Vienna. Brahms would not have cared about authenticity. He loved these tunes–with their fiery melodies, quick shifts of mood, and rhythmic freedom–and he successfully assimilated that style, particularly its atmosphere of wild gypsy fiddling (in fact, he assimilated it so successfully that several of the Hungarian Dances are based on “gypsy” tunes that he composed himself).
This concert offers three of Brahms’ Hungarian Dances. Program notes for the individual dances would be a form of intellectual overkill. Sit back, enjoy this fiery music, and sense why Brahms loved it as much as he did.
(Program note by Eric Bromberger)
Sonata No. 2 in D Major, Op. 94
This sonata, probably the most popular violin sonata composed in the 20th century, was originally written for the flute. But when David Oistrakh heard the premiere on December 7, 1943, he immediately suggested to the composer that it was ideal music for the violin. Together, composer and violinist prepared a version for violin and piano, and Oistrakh gave the first performance of this version on June 17, 1944. The music remains very much the same (the piano part is identical in both versions), but Prokofiev altered several passages to eliminate awkward string crossings for the violinist and added certain violinistic features impossible on the flute: pizzicatos, doublestops, harmonics. Ironically, the violin version–which profits enormously from the flexibility and range of sound of the violin–has become much more popular than the original.
In contrast to the bleak First Violin Sonata (which the composer said should sound “like wind in a graveyard”), the Second Sonata is one of Prokofiev’s sunniest compositions. There is no hint in this music of the war raging in Russia at this time, none of the pain that runs through the earlier sonata. The third movement is quietly wistful and the music is full of Prokofiev’s characteristically pungent harmonies, but the sonata is generally serene, a retreat from the war rather than its mirror.
The sonata is in the four-movement slow-fast-slow-fast sequence of the baroque sonata. The opening Moderato, in sonata form, begins with a beautifully poised melody for the violin, a theme of classical purity. The violin also has the second subject, a singing dotted melody. Prokofiev calls for an exposition repeat, and the vigorous development leads to a quiet close on a very high restatement of the opening idea.
The Presto sounds so brilliant and idiomatic on the violin that it is hard to imagine that it was not conceived originally for that instrument. This movement was in fact marked Allegretto scherzando in the flute version, but–taking advantage of the violin’s greater maneuverability–Prokofiev increased the tempo to Presto in the violin version, making it a much more brilliant movement. It falls into the classical scherzo-and-trio pattern, with two blazing themes in the scherzo and a wistful melody in the trio. The end of this movement, with the violin driving toward the climactic pizzicato chord, is much more effective in the violin version than in the original.
The mood changes markedly at the Andante, which is a continuous flow of melody on the opening violin theme. The violin part becomes more elaborate as the movement progresses, but the quiet close returns to the mood of the beginning. The Allegro con brio finale is full of snap and drive, with the violin leaping throughout its range. At the center of this movement, over steady piano accompaniment, Prokofiev gives the violin one of those bittersweet melodies so characteristic of his best music. Gradually the music quickens, returns to the opening tempo, and the sonata flies to its resounding close.
(Program note by Eric Bromberger)