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Program Notes: Benjamin Beilman, violin with Yekwon Sunwoo, piano

Franz Schubert

Sonata in A major D574

The adolescent Schubert was a busy young man indeed. Fresh from single-handedly inventing the 19th-century German art song (the Lied) at the tender age of 17, he subsequently developed a teenage crush on the violin which in the space of 18 months moved him to compose no less than 4 sonatas for the instrument, as well as a set of violin duets and two works for violin and orchestra.

These youthful exploits on both the vocal and instrumental fronts are not unconnected. Schubert’s Sonata in A major (1817) takes every opportunity to turn this stringed instrument into a salon vocalist in textures that highlight the violin’s capacity to sing, while not neglecting its other persona as a fleet-footed scampering elf.

The Sonata’s Allegro moderato first movement opens in a relaxed vein with a gently loping piano figure over which the violin breathes out a genial, long-limbed melody that seems never to want to end. A reasonable facsimile of a Beethovenian development section diverts our attention to a bit of knitting that needs doing on the ravelled sleeve of care, but Schubert’s heart really isn’t into confrontation so he returns as soon as possible to the lyric impulse of the opening in a recapitulation that floats blissfully back to the world of song.

Where Schubert more successfully channels Beethoven is in the Presto second movement scherzo, full of irregular phrase lengths, dynamic contrasts and harmonic surprizes, with a jumpy violin part leaping in every which direction. The middle-section trio is, by contrast, coyly chromatic, all eyebrows in its pursuit of melodic nuance.

Schubert surprises us with a moderately paced Andantino third movement instead of the traditional deeply lyrical adagio. Lyrical melody is indeed the initial starting point, but this movement has more on its mind than simple songfulness and plays out much in the way of a dramatic scene between violin and piano.

The Allegro vivace finale returns to the spirit of the scherzo with upward darting piano figures and a restless urge to acrobatics in the violin, all of these high jinks alternating with less frenzied moments of tuneful gaiety.

Leoš Janáček

Sonata for Violin & Piano

The music of Janáček has many wondrously strange qualities. Intimate and yet oddly exotic, it sits stylistically on the border between Eastern and Western Europe. One hears the thrum of the Moravian cimbalom (hammered dulcimer) but filtered through a misty veil of French impressionism. This is music of great terseness and concentration, its emotional intensity deriving from its use of short motives, often repeated, and swift changes of tempo. A frequent device is the three-note “hook-motive” consisting of three notes connected by a short interval followed by a long interval.

Just such a motive provides the principal melodic material for the first movement of this sonata. Presented both in long lyrical quarter notes and brief, aphoristic 32nds, it is woven densely through the fabric of the entire movement in constantly varied form. Notable in the piano part is the vibrating hum of the dulcimer, conveyed in tremolos and gestures reminiscent of that hammered instrument.

The same compositional process of continually varying a short repeated melodic motive is used in the second movement, as well, but to more lyrical ends. In this movement two theme threads of repeated motives are varied in turn, but at a more leisurely pace than in the previous movement. Harp-like piano arpeggios of the utmost delicacy give the central episode an admirable simplicity and charm.

The Allegretto third movement is structured in the A-B-A form of a traditional scherzo, with lively rambunctious music in the A section and a B section of a more sustained lyrical quality. Notable is how the piano still thinks it’s a dulcimer, buzzing away at the opening with a sonority-building left-hand trill and later hammering out its modal melody with a blunt force of attack.

The sonata ends with an Adagio final movement based on the implications of yearning contained in the piano’s opening 4-note phrase. At first reluctant to join in the reverie, the violin lets the piano take the lead, but then gets drawn into the lyrical up-draught and takes over the 4-note phrase as its own to make it soar over an outpouring of throbbing tremolos in the piano. Its fever spent, the movement’s emotional intensity drains away to an enigmatically quiet end.

Béla Bartók

Sonata No. 2 Sz 76

While Bartók’s ethnomusicological research into Hungarian folk music left an identifiable mark on his own music, he was not writing directly in the folk idiom, but rather in a highly stylized version of that idiom. His melodies are much more complex, and certainly more chromatic than Hungarian folk melodies, and his harmonic structures equally so. This is quite evident in his technically challenging Violin Sonata No. 2, written in 1922.

The gypsy improvisational style of playing provides one of the most obvious connections between the music of the rural countryside and his artistic transformation of it in this sonata. There is a willfulness to this music, an amalgam of high seriousness and emotional volatility, conveyed by the many changes in tempo marked in the score, that makes it especially compelling to listen to.

The first movement opens with a single low note on the piano answered by pulsing repetitions on a single note much higher up in the violin that then lead to a series of improvisatory musings. The two performing instruments seem to be staking out separate sound domains for themselves. And indeed the violin in this sonata largely moves in long phrases of wide-ranging melody, with many searingly intense high held notes, while the piano moves in austerely structured chord patterns or percussive attacks. There is really very little musical material that the two instruments share between them although they do appear to be in dialogue, or at least motivated by the same waves of emotional intensity as they travel along.

The second movement, which follows immediately, is on a more regular rhythmic footing. The pulse of the dance animates much this movement, as well as a distinctly acrobatic urge on the part of both instruments as moments of madcap frenzy alternate with pauses for lyrical reflection. After many an exhilarating climax is reached the opening improvisatory musings in the violin return to wind down the momentum of the movement to a point of stillness. In the final bars the instruments retreat to the high and low extremes of the sound spectrum where they began at the sonata’s opening.

Franz Schubert

Rondo in B minor D 895

The name ‘Schubert’ is not one you would normally associate with virtuoso violin music but his Rondo in B minor, published in 1827 under the title Rondo brillant, makes a fair case for the connection. This work was a display vehicle written especially for the young Czech superstar violinist Josef Slavík (1806-1833), whom Chopin called “a second Paganini.”

Structured in two large parts, it features an introductory Andante followed immediately by an Allegro in sonata-rondo form (A-B-A-C-A), a hybrid of the simple rondo toggling between a fixed refrain and contrasting sections and the sonata, with its play of key relationships and central development section.

The Introduction begins imposingly with the double-dotted rhythms of a Baroque French overture in the piano, answered by a pair of dazzling runs rocketing up to the high register – just to let you know who the star of the show is going to be. With the piano playing the role of orchestral straight man to the violin’s moody poet, more tuneful song-lines emerge to showcase the young fiddler’s finer sensibilities, although they are constantly being interrupted by stern double-dotted warnings from the fatherly piano.

The tension built up from this family drama is relieved when the Allegro gives both instruments common cause in propelling more uniformly rhythmic impulses to the fore. Although titularly in B minor, the main refrain theme of this rondo self-identifies as trans-tonal (the work actually ends in B major), but all such distinctions are rendered moot by the free and easy hand that Schubert uses when applying his modulatory magic.

The peppy dancelike air of the movement takes a military turn in the B theme and even the relatively more relaxed and lyrical C section can’t get a persistent dotted rhythm out of its head. A coda to rival that of any Rossini overture threatens the structural integrity of the roof, bringing the house down in a mad dash to the finish.

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