PRO-1314: Grieg: Sonatas for Violin and Piano

Considered by their composer to be exemplary of the three stages in his stylistic development, the Sonatas for Violin and Piano by Edvard Grieg occupy a special place in his rather limited output of chamber music. Even when allowing for the appreciation of main elements of his style, they are important milestones in a lifework which although somewhat repetitive in its use of form, is at the same time harmonically highly evolutionary.
The youthful first sonata in F-major, Opus 8, was composed in 1865 in Rungsted, near Copenhagen, where Grieg was spending the summer with his friend Benjamin Feddersen. The sonata was initially well received by that great reformer of Danish musical life and later mentor to Grieg himself, Niels Gade although no other work from this fertile first stay in the Danish capital was so singled out. Additionally, an entirely unexpected letter from Liszt praised the work giving the young composer’s career a welcome boost. In spite of a somewhat emotional youthful spirit, this first sonata exhibits a surprising melodic invention whose intuitive themes, breezy and virtuosic, suggest passages which might have been penned by a more seasoned hand. The first movement begins with two minor chords in the piano whose severe color and character seems to belie and obscure the allegro tempo which immediately follows. The movement is constructed on two complimentary themes, one light and definite, posed in canonic form by the violin with a relaxed lyricism and the other assigned to the piano whose development is intense and contrasting. In the second movement, Allegretto quasi andantino, with the characteristic tertiary form of the Scherzo the composer’s interest in the folklore of his country is seen in his melodic inspiration and his imitation of the folkloric droning of the “hardingfele” (Norwegian fiddle) in the trio. The well-developed thematic material and romantic style of the final movement, Allegro molto vivace shows a discreet nationalistic influence.
If the prior sonata demonstrates the awakening of a vocation as composer, the next, written in 1867 shows more maturity, in spite of the short space of time that separates them. Grieg, who had just married, was living at that time in Christiania (now Oslo) where he directed the local Filharmonic Society. This second Sonata, Opus 13 in G-major was dedicated to Johan Svendsen, violinist and composer, who was well-known to Grieg. Norwegian in character, the introduction, Lento doloroso, with a surprisingly unusual prelude introduces through the solo piano the tonality of g-minor in a heavy mood which is almost immediately interrupted by the electrifying passion of a passage for solo violin. Six bars of transition lead directly to the Allegro vivace, whose impetuous development is reminiscent of the Humoresques, Opus 6 for solo piano. The following movement accentuates the composer’s use of folk elements which is also the case in the last movement Allegro animato which exploits the rhythm of the Springdans (Jumping Dance) although nevertheless filled with the presaging lyricism of the famous piano concerto.
Conceived in 1886-87 at the instigation of the young Italian violinist Teresina Tua, who had visited the composer in Bergen, the third Sonata in c-minor makes a complete break with its two predecessors. Approximately twenty years had passed since writing the second sonata and Grieg, for various reasons (poor health, extensive travelling, lack of self satisfaction, etc.) had just gotten through an unproductive period. It appears that this work, his last completed chamber work, served as a challenge to the composer to bring himself out of an identity crisis. In a conscious effort to leave behind the shackles of nationalism which had marked previous compositions, Grieg intentionally aimed for “wider horizons” although he would again move back towards his former nationalistic style in later works. Animated by his own passionate personality, the sonata offers, within a rich and solid harmonic base, a refined essence interwoven into a splendid interplay between both instruments. The Allegro molto ed appasionatto encompasses a lovely main theme in which spiraling ascending figures in the violin contrast with the simple tune of the piano. Although there are unmistakable Germanic influences within the dense melodies, Grieg seems to find it impossible to overcome completely the Norwegian character of his writing. The second movement, Allegretto espresivo alla Romanza in E-major sketches out and then develops an idyllic and descriptive mood which is completed by an Allegro molto which is strongly lyrical and based discreetly on folk elements. Finally, the Allegro animato which concludes the work is a well worked-out celebration of virtuosity; expansive and vital, filled with broad and singing phrases which lead into a brilliant coda in Prestissimo tempo, a fitting conclusion to this splendid sonata which has still to carve out its rightful place in the repertory for violin and piano.

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