Leonidas Kavakos in Recital, January 27, 2019

Prokofiev: Sonata No. 1 in F minor for Violin and Piano, Opus 80

Bartók: Rhapsody No. 1 for Violin and Piano

Enescu: Sonata No. 3 in A minor for Violin and Piano, Opus 25, In the Rumanian style

Every era would seem to have its bevy of foolish plutocrats who blithely spend themselves into ruin. Ludwig van Beethoven’s patron Count Moritz von Fries (1777-1826) was one such hapless spendthrift who, having inherited massive wealth from a successful industrialist father, lived in stupefying opulence and showered artists with lavish patronage. Unfortunately, the good times ended as the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars brought inflation and economic woes. Although sensible budgeting could have probably seen Fries through the downturn just fine, he kept putting on the ritz. Debts piled up. Bankruptcy followed. Fries died flat broke, his entire estate going to creditors.

But it was heady stuff there for a while. Fries and his wife maintained a glorious salon in their Vienna palace, its halls agog with glitterati, its rooms brimming with exquisite artwork, furnishings, and books. The Count collected composers as well, as his commissions to his favorite Beethoven demonstrate. Fries was the dedicatee of Beethoven’s two violin sonatas, eventually numbered Opuses 23 and 24, as well as the Quartet, Opus 29 and, as a crowning glory, the Seventh Symphony.

Beethoven (1770-1827) conceived of the two violin sonatas, in A minor and F major respectively, as a matched pair, and as such each counterbalances the other, Janus-like. It’s the F major Spring Sonata that gets most of the attention; lithe and lyrical, everybody loves it and everybody plays it. But the A minor Sonata, while indubitably the less known of the two, is a deeply impressive composition, extraordinarily compressed and intensely expressive. “In no other Beethoven sonata will the duo find a greater challenge to its sense of drama, of timing, of musical repartee, than in this A minor work of the thirty-year-old composer,” claims Abram Loft in his two-volume study of the violin-piano duo repertory. “It is one of the most exciting pieces that amateur or professional can play.”

There’s a great deal that’s unusual about the A minor Sonata, not the least of which is its mode; only two of Beethoven’s ten violin sonatas are in minor. Furthermore, the first movement is cast in 6/8 time, a relatively rare meter for sonata-form movements. Typically associated with joviality or cheerfulness, here Beethoven employs the meter to evoke a bluff demeanor, terse and tight-lipped, characterized by curt melodic fragments and abrupt dynamic contrasts. Although it’s common for minor-mode sonata forms to modulate to the major for the secondary theme, thus lightening the mood, that’s not the case here; Beethoven retains the minor mode throughout with only the briefest of forays into major. Also atypical is the ending: pianissimo and hesitant rather than assertive.

The second-place Andante scherzoso, più allegretto offers a change of pace via major mode and an overall genial disposition. But the contrast only goes so far: Like the first movement, the Andante is also made up of brief melodic fragments rather than long-lined themes. It also ends quietly, almost as though tip-toeing out of earshot. Then it’s back to minor mode for the concluding Allegro molto, a breathless rondo in cut time with episodes that not only feature major mode but even employ the occasional sustained melody. Keeping with the previous two movements, the sonata ends quietly, on a sustained single note in both instruments.

Prokofiev: Sonata No. 1 in F minor for Violin and Piano, Opus 80

Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953) belonged to a select group of early twentieth century composers who stood counter to the tendency towards specialization encountered among their predecessors. Chopin, Wagner, Mahler, and Bruckner tended to hew fairly closely to certain genres—piano music, opera, and symphony respectively—while even the more broadly-scoped Brahms avoided theatrical music. But Prokofiev, along with Bartók, Britten, and Shostakovich, created a broad catalogue that encompassed just about every genre available, from piano music to opera, from violin sonata to ballet.

Admittedly, Prokofiev was a bit less active in chamber music than his colleagues; his two string quartets pale in comparison to the epochal cycles by Bartók and Shostakovich. But his sonatas for violin and cello are repertory staples, and rightly so: they are solidly-crafted, highly effective recital works that can anchor the most demanding program.

Violin Sonata No. 1 in F minor, Opus 80 belongs to Prokofiev’s series of “war” compositions, those works written in the years surrounding the Soviet Union’s wrenching agony in the Second World War. Looming even more ominously over the work’s gestation was Stalin’s “Great Terror,” unleashed starting in 1937 and impacting Prokofiev personally as well as professionally as the NKVD secret police arrested (and in most cases executed) a number of his colleagues, including his patron Marshal Mikhail Tukhachevsky.

It was an on-again, off-again process; Prokofiev began the sonata in 1938, then shelved it for other projects until 1943, even writing his Second Violin Sonata before resuming work on the First. It wasn’t until the War was over, in 1946, that Prokofiev completed the sonata and coached violinist David Oistrakh and pianist Lev Oborin for its October premiere. (Oistrakh was to play the first and third movements of the sonata at Prokofiev’s funeral in 1953.)

Among the most melancholic, brooding, and emotionally mercurial of Prokofiev’s works, the sonata opens with an unsettled Andante assai. Nominally in F minor, the movement doesn’t really settle down into that key until its concluding passage, a series of ghostly rushing scales in the violin (“wind passing through a graveyard,” according to Prokofiev) that lead to a somber restatement of its main theme in the piano against pizzicati (plucked strings) in the violin. The second-place Allegro brusco is downright feral in its fierce brutality; it might be a duet for jackhammer and rivet gun if it weren’t for the respite offered by its lyrical episodes.

Amid all this melancholia and savagery, the third movement comes as a welcome respite; both piano and violin trade off shimmering arpeggio-like figures that complement deceptively simple melodies. Of course all this gentleness cannot last; the Allegrissimo finale explodes in a torrent of spiky cross-rhythms and melodic figures so sharply etched as to seem to have been written with lasers. Triumph, however, is not forthcoming: After a shattering fortissimo climax, the ethereal graveyard wind of the first movement returns, bringing the sonata to a tranquil, if somber, close.

Bartók: Rhapsody No. 1 for Violin and Piano

Béla Bartók’s mature compositional style arose from a synthesis of three elements. First and foremost among those was Hungarian and Romanian folk music, which he studied in depth beginning in 1906 as he and colleague Zoltan Kodály traipsed about rural areas, collecting folk songs via an Edison wax cylinder recorder. Upon returning to Budapest Bartók (1881-1945) meticulously transcribed those cylinders into notation, becoming in the process what we would now call an ethnomusicologist. But Bartók was interested in far more than mere preservation; he absorbed the rhythms, modes, and melodic patterns of those melodies into his own compositions, sometimes writing settings of actual folk songs, but often using the overall feeling of folk music as an inspirational springboard for fully original music.

Among the most significant of Bartók’s folk-infused compositions are two Rhapsodies for Violin and Piano, both written in 1928–29, each dedicated to a different violinist: the First Rhapsody to Joseph Szigeti, the Second to Zoltán Székely. Unusually for Bartók, the Rhapsodies appear to have been written without any particular performance or venue in mind. Székely remembered Bartók telling him that “I have a surprise for you. I have written two rhapsodies. One is for you; one is for Szigeti.” Bartók made good use of his new compositions; he provided a cello arrangement of the First Rhapsody and republished both for violin and orchestra. They remain among his most popular works—accessible, engaging, filled with piquant Eastern European folk tunes, and showy without being ostentatious.

Like Liszt’s earlier Hungarian Rhapsodies, Bartók’s Rhapsody No. 1 for Violin and Piano is divided into two sections: a lassú, lyrical and filled with expressive rubato, and an exuberant friss pieced together as a chain of dance melodies, mostly fast but with the occasional break for an introspective moment. However, that’s about as far as similarities to Liszt’s rhapsodies go; whereas Liszt had inadvertently quoted mostly recently-written Roma band music, Bartók went back to the source and made use of actual East European folk materials, together with an authentic playing style captured on those Edison cylinders.

The lassú is structured simply, made up of two folk melodies in an A-B-A arrangement with a short coda. The ‘A’ melody—a Romanian folk tune—is cast in the Lydian mode, while the contrasting ‘B’ section (a Hungarian tune) is in standard minor mode complete with the occasional foray into major. The friss treats the listener to a series of dancelike tunes; Bartók claimed that he made “no attempt whatever to create structure or integration.”

Bartók and Szigeti left us a priceless recording of the First Rhapsody, made in April 1940 during a recital at the Library of Congress. It documents the freewheeling expressivity of the lassú with its near-constant rubato, followed by a light, exuberant approach to the friss. Szigeti had the gypsy-infused style of Hungarian fiddlers in his blood, while Bartók never played the piano like “somebody playing Bartók”—i.e., harshly, metallically, percussively.

Enescu: Sonata No. 3 in A minor for Violin and Piano, Opus 25, In the Rumanian Style

It’s altogether too easy to pigeonhole George Enescu (1881-1955) as that Romanian nationalist chap who wrote the ever-popular Romanian Rhapsody No. 1 for orchestra. The actual state of affairs about Enescu is far more intriguing. He was an astounding musician, gifted at the astronomical level of a Mozart. His instrument was the violin, by which he made his living as one of the giants of the early twentieth century, touring, concertizing, recording, and teaching. (San Francisco-born Yehudi Menuhin was among his protégés, a select group that also includes Christian Ferras, Ida Haendel, and Arthur Grumiaux.) As if that weren’t enough, he was a conductor of such ability as to be a candidate as Toscanini’s successor at the New York Philharmonic, a pianist of such skill as to elicit the admiration of no less than Alfred Cortot, a capable musical entrepreneur and manager, and last but not least, a superlative composer whose output ranges far beyond the few Romanian nationalist works for which he is mostly remembered. He achieved all this over a lifetime beset with severe health and personal problems, but remained a humble, self-effacing gentleman no matter what his difficulties. Menuhin described him as “the most extraordinary human being, the greatest musician and the most formative influence I have ever experienced.”

Admitted to the Vienna Conservatory at age seven, Enescu evolved along lines similar to his exact contemporary Béla Bartók: a youthful period of late Romanticism followed by an immersion in native folk music, the whole brought together with the styles and idioms of the early twentieth century. No Enescu work exemplifies that journey more fully than his 1926 Sonata No. 3 in A minor, Opus 25, In the Rumanian Style. Even if it is technically a sonata for violin and piano, in reality it’s a sonata for a wide variety of instruments—the piano as cymbalon, lute, and pizzicato strings, the violin as crickets, larks, and most importantly, the human voice in the parlando rubato style that Bartók employed so dramatically in his two rhapsodies. The sheer range of its sonic effects is mesmerizing, and how Enescu managed to get all of that down on paper was the “greatest achievement in musical notation” for its day, according to Menuhin.

As a result, the Enescu Third Sonata challenges its performers not only technically and musically, but also stylistically, conceptually, and poetically. Enescu’s meticulous notation, no matter how scrupulously followed, is but a starting point on the way to an effective performance. Only by seeking the spirit behind the symbols can Enescu’s prophetic masterpiece of a distant sonic world come to life, in all its fascination and otherworldly allure. —Scott Foglesong

Scott Foglesong is a Contributing Writer to the San Francisco Symphony program book.