Our music for this week is the Sonata for Two Violins by Sergei Prokofiev.
“Listening to bad music sometimes inspires good ideas… After once hearing an unsuccessful piece [unspecified] for two violins without piano accompaniment, it struck me that in spite of the apparent limitations of such a duet one could make it interesting enough to listen to for ten or fifteen minutes….” Sergei Prokofiev, 1941
Thus the idea for this sonata was born. It was written in 1932 on commission for a private recital, but it soon became well-known in public concert halls. There are four movements in this sonata; you will be hearing the second, performed by violinists Alexi Kenny and Brian Hong. This movement is all about rhythm, virtuosity, and aggression. Listen to how the violins trade flying eighth note jabs in percussive waterfalls up and down the harmonic register.
I would also encourage you to watch the performers themselves in this video. Notice how they use eye contact and body motion to communicate and stay in touch with each other during these challenging sections. As a musician myself, I can attest to the paramount importance of eye contact and expressive motion (to an extent) during performance. These physical cues can help the musicians connect through and across musical shapes and can also ensure rhythmic stability.
Our music for this week is the Fantasia in F Minor for four hands by Franz Schubert, performed by Dutch brothers Lucas and Arthur Jussen.
The Jussen brothers provide a fantastic rendition of this well-known work. They achieved international stardom at a very young age and have since toured the world together, performing piano duos like this one to packed audiences. Legendary British conductor Sir Neville Marriner commented after conducting one of their performances: “It’s like driving a pair of BMW’s. This is not just two good pianists playing together. They sense each other’s most small, individual little bit of interpretation.”
Fantasia in F Minor for four hands was written only a few months before Schubert died. It is one of his most complete and beautiful works. Unlike most other piano duos, which were originally composed for a larger ensemble and then adapted to the four-handed context, this duo was written specifically for two pianists.
You will hear four distinct movements. The first movement is all about lyricism. Delightfully light and airy Schubert-ian melodies grace the top line, and dense but rolling figures are featured in the bottom line. The second movement, which was inspired by Paganini’s second violin concerto (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tLOciQwraZg), contains an atmosphere of virtuosic turbulence. The third movement contrasts the agitation of the second movement with a brightness and liveliness that is more of what one might expect of Schubert. The fourth movement, which has been called “the most remarkable cadence in the whole of Schubert’s work,” harkens back to Bach and uses a fugue format to recapitulate all three of the previous themes.
Our music for this week is the Violin Sonata No. 5 in F Major by
Ludwig van Beethoven. It is performed by Oleg Kagan on the violin and
Sviatoslav Richter on the piano.
As you listen to more and more classical music, you’ll begin to
see patterns in how certain types of pieces are structured. For instance, most
symphonies have four movements, most string quartets also have four, most
concertos have three, and most sonatas also have three. Beethoven’s sonatas,
however, broke this mold, featuring a pseudo-symphonic format that includes
four movements. Just like most symphonies, the movements are Allegro (an
expository opening), Adagio (a slow middle movement to put the audience to
sleep), Scherzo (a fast middle movement to wake the audience up), and
Rondo/Allegro (an intense finale).
A word about the musicians: in my opinion, this may be one of the
greatest “superstar lineups” to ever perform. Kagan, who we have heard before, was destined to become the greatest
of all time but for his tragic early death as a result of cancer. Richter very
well may be the greatest pianist to ever live, and we devoted an entire series on him! Together, they are as good a duo as
you will ever hear – perfectly together, uniquely individual, and masterfully
stylistic. Notice Kagan’s period-correct vibrato – not too narrow (as he might
do for a Mozart sonata) and not too wide (as he might do when playing Brahms).
Notice Richter’s impeccable phrasing – not too stark (like Shostakovich), but
certainly not subtle (as in Bach).
The opening melody of this sonata is beautiful in a way I’m not sure I can describe. It is delightfully sad, wonderfully sad, warmly sad. It is sad in a way that only makes sense when viewed in light of the fact that Beethoven was, at this time, simultaneously soaring to the top of the musical world while also losing the ability to hear his own music. I remember listening to audio cassettes in my childhood that dramatized the lives of famous composers through a child’s eyes, and this was the sonata that played when Beethoven walked alone at night through the streets of Vienna, remembering his youth and fighting back the tears that welled up whenever his silent existence became too much to bear. I’m not sure whether that particular scene ever happened in Beethoven’s life, but I know that it perfectly portrays the atmosphere of this sonata. Perhaps that is the wonderfully ironic miracle of its nickname “Spring” – a glimmer of hope at the end of a dark journey.
To conclude our series on great duets in classical music history, we will be listening to Passacaglia by Halvorsen, based on a theme by George Frederic Handel. The musicians are Julia Fischer and Daniel Muller-Schott.
Johan Halvorsen was a Norwegian violinist and conductor who was widely known through Europe in the early 20th century. He wrote the duet initially for violin and viola, and it has since been transcribed for violin and cello. The theme that Halvorsen used to create this duet was taken from George Frederic Handel’s Harpsichord Suite No. 7 in G Minor. (For those of you who are new to this whole classical music business, Handel is the composer who wrote the Messiah that we so often hear at Christmas-time). A passacaglia is a French dance form that starts with a simple melody and builds on it with a series of increasingly complex variations. This particular piece contains 12 variations in which the violin and the cello take turns carrying the dominant voice. You’ll see the performers plucking the strings (musicians call this pizzicato), playing complex sets of chords, bouncing the bow on the strings (musicians called this ricochet) and flying up and down the fingerboard with amazing dexterity. By the end of the piece, we will have experienced the full breadth of virtuosic capability in both instruments.