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Thursday, November 15, 2007
Program Notes: Tetzlaff, Lonquich, Beethoven Part II

The following are program notes by David Wright for the Beethoven Violin and Piano Sonatas that will be performed by violinist Christian Tetzlaff and pianist Alexander Lonquich at the 92nd Street Y on December 2 in their only New York recitals. It is the second of a 3-concert series.

BEETHOVEN: Sonata for Violin and Piano in F Major, Op. 24, “Spring”
Beethoven composed the Sonata for Violin and Piano in F Major, Op. 24, “Spring,” in 1800-01.

An air of genial amateurism clung to the violin-and-piano sonata until almost the end of the Classical era; even Beethoven did not really rattle the rafters in this genre until the ninth of his 10 sonatas, the “Kreutzer,” Op. 47. The first five works in this series—up to and including the “Spring” Sonata, Op. 24—find Beethoven approaching age 30, still showing off his mastery of the Classical forms he inherited from Haydn and Mozart. His most startling, controversial works are piano sonatas such as the “Pathétique,” Op. 13, and the fantasy sonatas of Op. 27 (including the “Moonlight"); in other genres, the astonishing strides of the “Eroica” Symphony and “Razumovsky” Quartets still lie ahead. If we compare this Beethoven not to his later self but to the musical world of the year 1800, we can appreciate the verve, skill, and originality of his early works; we see why the Viennese public was about to place him on a level with his great predecessors.

That process took two big steps forward in 1800-01. The first was a concert put on by Beethoven on April 2, 1800, an official debut of sorts, at which he pointedly programmed a Mozart symphony and portions of The Creation by Haydn alongside two of his new works: the Septet, Op. 20, which was an instant hit, and the First Symphony, which received mixed reviews. The second was the ballet The Creatures of Prometheus, with a new score by Beethoven, which opened the following March 28, then ran for 19 more performances. This music was such a success with the public that Beethoven said exultantly, “It is my Creation!”

During the year between these events, despite worries about his fading hearing, Beethoven composed many outstanding works, including three fine instrumental sonatas: Op. 22 in B-flat major for piano, and a pair for violin and piano, Op. 23 in A minor and Op. 24 in F major.

Sometime after Beethoven’s death, the delicious, Mendelssohnian opening of the Op. 24 Sonata made someone think of spring, and a nickname was born. Beethoven himself has little time for such lollygagging, and soon his familiar wiry strength asserts itself in rapping eighth notes, which dominate the rest of the movement. But the Adagio molto espressivo keeps its pastoral character throughout, with placid, flowing melody and slow moving harmonies that linger in the movement’s home key, B flat major, and its dominant, F major. The little Scherzo is over almost before we can figure out what its rhythm is; the two players seem to disagree on the subject, right to the end. The closing movement has all the elements of a classic early Beethoven rondo finale: a relaxed main theme (with a strong resemblance to the one in the mellow Piano Sonata in B-flat, Op. 22), a stormy episode in the minor, a false return of the theme in a remote key, ingenious decorations of the theme, a moment or two of harmonic adventure, and a coda gently bubbling with new ideas.

BEETHOVEN: Sonata for Violin and Piano in A Major, Op. 30, No. 1
Beethoven composed the Sonata for Violin and Piano in A Major, Op. 30, No. 1 in 1801-02.

Throughout his career, Beethoven returned often to the instrumental sonata, wrestling with it, infusing it with new ideas, and in the process producing another batch of works in the form. One such burst of activity took place in 1801 02; to this we owe the five piano sonatas of Opp. 26, 28, and 31, the two piano fantasy sonatas of Op. 27 (including the “Moonlight"), and the three violin piano sonatas of Op. 30. Most of these pieces represent notable advances in expressiveness, depth, or heroic scale over what had gone before, although the opuses that group more than one sonata under one number (Opp. 27, 30, and 31) all begin with an ingratiating work that hides its revolutionary language under a cheerful or comical surface.

The equanimity of the A major Sonata, Op. 30, No. 1, is evident right from the start in the smooth scalewise motion of its themes—no dramatic leaps here. The opening theme, in fact, contains all the contrasting elements this easygoing movement needs: a turn-figure in fast 16th-notes followed by a steady flow of quarter-notes. Throughout the movement, spurting turns jostle gently with flowing phrases. The development section, while featuring the turn motive, manages to refer to nearly every idea and variant introduced in the exposition, after which Beethoven relaxes into a literal recapitulation, letting his ideas unfold as before.

A slow movement in the subdominant key (in this case, D major) usually has a “tenderizing” effect on the music, and this Adagio is no exception. Beethoven balances the sentiment of the violin’s cantabile with a rather formal piano accompaniment in dotted rhythm. The ever-modulating theme evokes many fleeting micro-moods within the overall one of calm pathos, which is consistent enough so that a minor-key episode can simply break off in the middle, followed by a return of the main theme as if nothing had happened. The flow of triplets in the second episode carries over into the next return of the theme, but the dotted rhythm re-establishes itself in the quiet, leisurely coda.

From the Adagio‘s peaceful close emerges a relaxed theme that recalls two movements from Beethoven’s piano sonatas of this period: the variations of Op. 26 in A-flat major and the rondo of Op. 22 in B-flat major. And this is, in fact, a set of six variations, which, having begun with a variation that is mostly for the piano, then goes on to explore a wide variety of ways for the two instruments to interact on equal terms—all without getting its hair mussed, of course.

BEETHOVEN: Sonata for Violin and Piano in C minor, Op. 30, No. 2
Beethoven composed the Sonata for Violin and Piano in C minor, Op. 30, No. 2 in 1801-02.

Following the mild-mannered sonatas that begin the “group” opuses mentioned above, Beethoven gets down to brass tacks in the “No. 2” of each series. The daring, dramatic piano sonatas nicknamed “Moonlight” and “Tempest” occupy this spot in Op. 27 and Op. 31, respectively, and although it lacks any such traditional moniker, the C minor Sonata for violin and piano, Op. 30, No. 2, is every bit as arresting a work as they are. From the “Pathétique” Sonata to the Fifth Symphony to the last piano sonata Op. 111, C minor was a favorite key for Beethoven’s most important, even revolutionary, utterances. Furthermore, the four movement form of Op. 30, No. 2—rare among Beethoven’s middle period sonatas—provides the large canvas needed for an ambitious, “symphonic” work.

With all this, the character of the sonata comes as something of a surprise: it doesn’t quite display the heart on sleeve passion that we associate with Beethoven in C minor. Like the “Tempest” Sonata, it is a knotty work, hinting at intense but repressed emotions. Each movement opens softly, with the piano alone (a holdover, perhaps, from the days when all such duo sonatas were billed as “for piano with violin accompaniment"), and for most of the way our stereotypical Beethoven the thunderer yields to Beethoven the rumbler. Even the lengthy codas—so often the emotional climax of a Beethoven movement—are curiously open ended, with baffling modulations and sometimes even a new theme. But, ambiguities and all, this music is echt Beethoven: gripping, strongly contrasted, unpredictable.

In the first movement, Beethoven hints at a heroic confrontation between two themes: a menacing one in C minor, and a march tune in E flat major whose military snap anticipates the “Eroica” Symphony in that key, composed the following year. Quite a storm brews in the development section, and with minor key themes returning in major and vice versa, the outcome remains in doubt; the movement ends where it began, with a soft statement of the menacing theme. Here as in the “Pathétique,” a songful Adagio in A flat major follows a C minor first movement; this Adagio, however, is more complex than its predecessor, thanks to contrapuntal interplay between the instruments and a daring coda that strikes off in unexpected directions.

The Scherzo, in contrast, is tight and concise; there is hardly any distinction in character and themes between the outer sections and the Trio, and no coda at all. With the muscular humor of its irregular phrases and offbeat sforzandi, the whole movement seems like a single heroic joke. The theme of the finale—a scary crescendo coupled with enigmatic descending chords—sounds at first more like an introduction than a tune. In the episodes, the music develops momentum like that of the “Moonlight” Sonata’s finale, but it always pauses again to contemplate the main theme’s mystery, which is not dispelled even by the frenzy of the Presto coda.

©2007 by David Wright

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