Mozart: Sonata in B-flat major for Piano and Violin, K.454

Evolution happens. Violin sonatas mature. By the time Mozart settled in Vienna (beginning in 1781) the violin, formerly downgraded as the piano’s disposable accompanist, had been promoted to a full-fledged participant in a bona fide duo in which neither instrument calls the shots. For a violin and piano to trade a theme back and forth, much less indulge in mid-phrase handoffs, would have been almost unthinkable in the early days, but in Mozart’s later Vienna sonatas such dialogue became a regular and welcome occurrence.

Mozart may have been prolific, but he was also a world-class procrastinator. His tendency to play fast and loose with deadlines was in full flower with the Violin Sonata in B-flat major, K.454, which he wrote for an April 1784 concert with violinist Regina Strinasacchi at Vienna’s K√§rntnerthor Theater. Scrambling against the clock as usual, he just managed to write out Strinsacchi’s part, but not his own, so he performed the sonata by memory with a blank sheet of music paper in front of him. (It is said that Emperor Joseph II saw through the subterfuge via a pair of opera glasses.)

Dash to the finish line or not, the Violin Sonata offers up Mozart at his fully-matured best. An imposing opening Largo emphasizes the absolute equality of the two instruments as they trade figures back and forth, before launching into an immaculately crafted sonata-form Allegro that sports the free-form development section so typical of Mozart. The second-place Andante is essentially an operatic aria transplanted into a sonata; all it needs is words and a stage setting. To conclude, a deliciously elegant Allegretto gives us an excellent example of the recently-evolved “sonata-rondo” form that, as the name implies, addresses the dangerously repetitive nature of rondo by applying the developmental logic of sonata form.—Scott Foglesong

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