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Sonata in A minor for Violin and Piano

David Norris’s interesting experiments suggest that the thought processes that may guide a performance, over and above those concerned directly with producing an abstract musical interpretation, do have an effect upon the listener’s appreciation of a work.

I make no apologies, then, for these ‘programme’ notes, which are not intended as some kind of tone poem commentary, but which may help map out the emotional journey upon which performers and audience alike are about to embark, over nearly half an hour.

The sonata’s four movements were composed in two blocks, the outer pair separated from the inner movements by the time it took to compose the six Compline settings which make up Completus.
But the final picture was present in my mind from the outset, with the end of the second movement both its structural and emotional core.

The first movement, which starts quasi a piacere is in a straight forward sonata form, the second subject a shifting 11/8 10/8 rhythm in the dominant, E minor. After a brief look at the first subject the development concentrates on what was originally a short link passage, now marked semplice.

No surprises in the recapitulation or coda, except perhaps the final Picardy third, one of only two or three major chords in the whole movement.

This leads nicely into the second movement, nominally in D, which is built around two melodies, the first piangevole, the second aperto, at least in name.

The ten-quaver time signature of some of the first movement is followed here by a recurring ten-beat pattern which underlies the whole of the second movement, employing a 3/4 4/4 3/4 ‘ostinato’.

In the E minor Scherzando which follows, the fives and tens are made explicit. The first movement’s second subject now reappears, comfortably in 5/4, but with an accompanying figure less comfortably in 5/8s. There are references to the second movement’s second theme and its counter-melody, minus their intensity, and after a hectic canon the movement closes whimsically, and almost as an afterthought with another Picardy third.

The final Rondo picks up the major chord and slips happily into A major, with a lively bubbly melody nominally in 5/4, but with waltz time pretensions. The first of the two minor key episodes, in the relative minor, is a further reminiscence on the second movement’s aperto theme, while the second, giocoso delicatamente in the tonic minor is an angst-free reflection on the first’s semplice development.

It is not, however, these ‘mechanics’ that really matter. What counts is the emotional journey from the violinist’s first anguished cry, from G# up to F and on up to E, through to the last movement’s final bravura A major arpgeggio.

For most of the piece the two performers represent two characters and perhaps its title would be more appropriately "Degrees of Affinity". The opening quasi a piacere is significant, because the two parts rarely relate to one another, with little conversation and much asserting of individual view points. The movement is overwhelmingly minor, its intensity heightened by the violinist’s playing high up on the string, sul A, sul D and sul G.

The ‘yearning’ of the second movement is almost overwhelming. The violin’s aperto show is soon seen to be just that and it is only in the highly charged final section, when the violin line drops a semitone to the key of G flat, that the two really come together.

After the passion of the second movement, the Scherzando relaxes the tension emotionally (if not technically). For the first time, there is a playfulness about the music and the final delayed major chord, pianissimo, reassures us the teasing was just a game.

In the last movement we hear the two parts genuinely singing as one, accompanying one another, and embracing each other in a heady, swirling waltz whose five in a bar time signature only emphasises its breathless excitement. The two minor episodes hark back briefly to earlier darker days, but the mood is now quite changed, with nothing allowed to spoil the idyllic happy ending .

Kerry Milan, Stafford April 2008.