Back to Brahms’ G major Violin Sonata yesterday, which I first learned to play for a concert in Downing College in 2000 with an errant NatSci-turned-English-student. Those were the days when I didn’t have to practise quite so much… Or maybe those were the days when I didn’t have to do much else so the practice just seemed to slip by…! Anyway, Jane and I prefixed a few other works to that great, pacific Sonata, and wore exceedingly colourful clothes. My crazy waistcoat even sported plastic buttons in the shape of elephants. At my age I really should know better.
Joaquín Turina (1882-1949)
Edward Elgar (1857-1934)
Salut d’Amour, Op.12
Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)
Sonata No.1 in G major, Op.78
Vivace ma non troppo – Adagio – Allegro molto moderato
With every work in this recital we step back a little further in time. Turina’s Variaciones were published in 1932, the year after he became professor of composition at the Madrid Conservatoire. The Western world was then gripped by a recession even more damaging even than the one we are struggling in today. Perhaps the uncertainty and anger that characterise the theme sprung partly from that source and from the political turmoil that engulfed Spain in the 30s. The four variations (plus vigourous finale) that develop the theme are generally more upbeat. The first shares the A minor tonality of the theme, but moves like a dance; variation two is a gentle waltz; variation three a foot-stamping blaze of B major and variation four begins with a shout of triumph and dissolves into mystical wanderings on the black notes.
In Sospiri (“Sighs”), published in 1914, we hear an Edwardian elegance full of regret – regret for a glory that was fading fast, and indeed that was about to be rudely shattered by the onset of the Great War. Deceptively simple, it is full of aching melancholy as well as the nobility that one expects from Elgar. In a totally different mood from a more optimistic era comes Salut d’Amour, one of the early pieces that made the composer famous. It was completed in July 1888 just a few weeks before Elgar’s engagement to its dedicatee – a most fitting “Love’s Greeting”.
Travelling further back is Brahms’ sun-soaked Sonata, finished off in the summer of 1879 on the tranquil shores of the Wörther Sea in Austria. Buoyed by the success of his Violin Concerto (1878) Brahms took up the instrument again to produce one of the greatest works in the repertoire. The opening movement is in a complex sonata form. The first few notes of the first subject are the seeds of the whole work. There are lilting cross rhythms introduced by the second subject, a slower, darker development section, and an ecstatic coda. The warm central Adagio bears a nobility worthy of Elgar, and in its funeral-march episodes hint at the tragic death of Felix Schumann, son of Robert and Clara Schumann, in February 1879. Brahms had in fact written out a portion of the main theme of this slow movement and sent it as a decorative gift to Clara and her son only days before his death, adding “Dear Clara, if you play the material overleaf very slowly it will say to you more clearly than I otherwise could how affectionately I think of you and Felix – even his violin , which I believe to be silent”. The third movement, in G minor, driven along by the sound of rain (its main theme is a quotation from the composer’s Regenleider of 1873) refuses to give way to despair. Brahms weaves a quiet, poignant triumph out of familiar threads, the magical return of the Adagio and the final discovery of the tonic major.