Schumann’s First Violin Sonata: Passionate, Tempestuous

schumann

Last week the exceptionally talented, young conductor, Tito Muñoz led the Richmond Symphony in a memorable concert which included Robert Schumann’s Fourth Symphony. Returning to this symphony, I was reminded of the subtle sense of schizophrenia that often inhabits Schumann’s music. For example, in the first theme of the Fourth Symphony’s opening movement, listen to the way the music develops through obsessive rhythmic repetition. The restless eight-note motive that makes up this theme haunts the entire first movement, twisting and evolving throughout the development section. It resurfaces in the bridge to the final movement (a nod to Beethoven’s Fifth), as if to say, “You can’t escape me…I’m still here!”

Schumann’s Violin Sonata No. 1 in A minor, op. 105 develops with a similarly stormy, obsessive intensity. For the first movement, rather than a standard tempo marking like “Allegro,” Schumann provides the words, Mit leidenschaftlichem Ausdruck (with passionate expression). The opening motive begins in the depths of the violin amid tempestuous piano arpeggios. It reaches tentatively, falls back and reaches again before soaring higher. Listen to the conversation between the violin and piano as the motive is passed back and forth. This is a persistent conversation which becomes increasingly intense (listen to the piano at 1:02). There’s a strong sense of striving, and by the end of the exposition a few hints of sunlight have appeared (1:58). But then we get pulled back into the depths. One of my favorite moments in this first movement is the way we return from the development to the recapitulation (5:40).

Listen for the stormy, obsessive development of the opening motive and enjoy the incredible drama which unfolds in this first movement. Here are Japanese violinist Shoji Sayaka and pianist Itamar Golan in recital at Tokyo’s Suntory Hall in 2005:

Here are the second and third movements. In the second movement (Allegretto), the musical conversation seems to end frequently in a question. You may hear passages which anticipate Johannes Brahms’ violin sonatas.

The A minor Violin Sonata was first performed publicly by Clara Schumann and the German violinist Ferdinand David in March, 1852. David worked closely with Felix Mendelssohn, influencing Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto.

Recordings

  • Gidon Kremer and Martha Argerich: find on iTunes, find at Amazon, listen to a sample
  • Christian Tetzlaff and Lars Vogt: a new recording, released in 2013. Find on iTunes
  • Carolin Widmann and Denes Varjon: find at Amazon
  • Ilya Kaler and Boris Slutsky: find at Naxos
  • Augustin Hadelich and Akira Eguchi perform the first movement: youtube

Brahms’ Piano Quintet in F Minor

Brahms Piano QuintetA ferocious, restless energy characterizes Brahms’ Piano Quintet in F Minor, Op. 34. It’s music which is constantly developing and evolving from the smallest motivic seed.

At first Brahms wrestled to find the right instrumentation. The music started out as a string quartet, developed into a sonata for two pianos and then, on the recommendation of Clara Schumann, found its true form as a marriage of piano and strings. This evolution is similar to the compositional process of the First Piano Concerto, which was originally intended to be a symphony. It’s almost as if the piece was telling Brahms what it wanted to be as he composed.

Brahms completed the Piano Quintet in 1864, when he was in his early 30sListen for complex rhythmic shifts-moments where you might lose track of the downbeat. Also, listen for the reference to Beethoven’s Late String Quartets in the opening of the last movement.

Here is a classic 1968 recording with pianist Christoph Eschenbach and the Amadeus Quartet:

  1. Allegro non troppo 00:00
  2. Andante, un poco Adagio 14:44
  3. Scherzo. Allegro – Trio 23:37
  4. Finale. Poco sostenuto – Allegro non troppo 31:51

Find on iTunes