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Hyperion Records

CDA67504 - Grieg: Violin Sonatas

Recording details: October 2004
Henry Wood Hall, London, United Kingdom
Produced by Eric Wen
Engineered by Tony Faulkner
Release date: June 2006
Total duration: 75 minutes 15 seconds

'The playing is outgoing and communicative, and each movement makes a distinct positive impression. In vivacious movements the sheer verve of the playing is irresistible … an extremely enjoyable issue' (Gramophone)

'Following beautiful discs of Bloch and Hubay, Hagai Shaham offers us a remarkable album of Grieg. Dominated by musical quality without fault, these interpretations are also worth for perfect balance between the two instruments … in the three sonatas Shaham knew how to preserve a mixture of simplicity and thrifty lyricism which characterizes them … a beautiful good album' (Diapason, France)

'It is always a treat to get a Shaham-Erez recording to review … in this recording the violin and piano are treated as equal partners. Both instruments are reproduced in a way that allows everything to be heard in the musical equivalent to full natural color. Their musicianship is superb' (American Record Guide)

'Any rival versions to this Hyperion disc will have to be truly exceptional, for this issue is, in almost every respect, going to be hard to beat. The recording quality is first-class—the balance between the instruments is ideal, and the performances have clearly been thought through with considerable musicianship. This is a first-rate issue' (International Record Review)

'A strong recommendation' (Fanfare, USA)

'For each sonata has its own distinctive personality, while each also finds the composer in full command of the duo combination as a partnership of equals. Full marks then to the collaboration of Shaham and Erez, and to the Hyperion recording, which has such a natural perspective. For example, the violin tone in climactic passages, such as the second movement of Op 8, is particularly imposing and effective. The two players bring to the music a spontaneous flow … as a mark of their success, great moments such as the arrival of the ‘big tune’ in the dance-like finale of the Sonata No 3 can be heard for all they are worth’ (MusicWeb International)

'In these brilliant, exuberant and flawless performances technical means and exquisite interpretations are bound together in a pure and attractive manner … prick up your ears especially for the magnificent transition to melancholy in the Allegretto tranquillo of Sonata No 2 … this is a superb duo' (Luister, Netherlands)

'Hagai Shaham et Arnon Erez ont su nous faire entendre tour à tour les motifs principaux sans véritable 'amalgame' de leurs voix, ont pu trouver une grande homogénéité de style et un parfait équilibre sonore et ont réussi à faire resortir toutes les innovations mélodiques, harmoniques et rythmiques imaginées par Grieg' (Classica, France)

Violin Sonatas
Allegro con brio  [8'46]
Allegro animato  [5'21]
Småtroll 'Puck'  [1'45]

In 1900 the fifty-six-year-old Edvard Grieg cast an eye back over his music and confessed that he thought his three violin sonatas were among his best works, each of them representing a stage in his development, ‘the first naïve, rich in ideas, the second national and the third with a wider horizon’.

On this disc violinist Hagai Shaham displays his thrilling virtuosity and lustrous tone in his performances of Greig’s favourite sonatas, through the lyrical, spring-like freshness of Sonata No 1 and the playful rustic folk-inspired charm of Sonata No 2 to the brooding and dramatic Sonata No 3.

Also on this disc are six of Grieg’s piano miniatures, arranged for violin and piano by the Lithuanian-born violinist, Joseph Achron.

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Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
In a letter to the writer Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson in January 1900—perhaps encouraged by the same sentiments that stimulated our own millennial retrospection a hundred years later—the fifty-six-year-old Edvard Grieg cast an eye back over his music and confessed that he thought his three violin sonatas were among his best works, each of them representing a stage in his development: ‘the first naïve, rich in ideas, the second national and the third with a wider horizon’.

When one considers how few chamber-music works Grieg composed—a mere five, in a worklist seventy-four opus numbers long (and there are many unnumbered works, too)—it is telling that no fewer than three of them are violin sonatas. (The other two are the String Quartet, Op 27, and the Cello Sonata, Op 36, although there were several others that remained unfinished: a piano trio from 1878, of which one movement was completed; a piano quintet surviving in fragments, perhaps from 1883; and a second string quartet, of which two movements were written in 1891, completed after Grieg’s death by his close friend Julius Röntgen—whose own glorious music is only now beginning to be discovered.) Indeed, there was no other large-scale musical form in which he completed more than one work: there is a single, early symphony (1863–4) on the score of which he wrote ‘Must never be performed’ (though, hedging his bets, he didn’t go so far as to destroy it) and a lonely piano sonata, Op 7, from 1865; true, he did sketch some material for a second piano concerto in 1883, but the project got no further than those sketches (and in any case it was a commission, not something Grieg undertook of his own accord). All of Grieg’s other larger compositions assemble disparate smaller movements. The violin sonata therefore takes on a special mantle as the only genre outside the miniature in which Grieg felt at ease.

Two factors made that an improbable alliance. The first was his swift realization that sonata-form—the high-water-mark of the German tradition—was not for him, though it had been inculcated into him during his years at the Leipzig Conservatoire (1858–62). Though founded only in 1843, the Conservatoire was already the academy of choice for young Nordic composers wishing to fortify their technique: the Dane Niels Gade had preceded Grieg there, and other Norwegians who were to attend included Hjalmar Borgstrøm, Catharinus Elling, Iver Holter, Christian Sinding and Johan Svendsen. But, as a rebel-in-waiting, Grieg found that the insistence on academic correctitude made the teaching there singularly unrewarding. The second factor was that Grieg’s own instrument was the piano: if he were going to compose sonatas, one might reasonably have expected them to be for the piano.

But two compensating factors meant that the violin was a vital part of his musical development—and for a pianist his writing for the violin was surprisingly idiomatic. The primary influence in Grieg’s early life was the violinist and composer Ole Bull (1810–1880), a pioneering nationalist in Norwegian music. It was Bull who recognized the talent of the young Edvard and who convinced his parents to send him, aged only fifteen, to Leipzig for the formal musical training that was unavailable in the Norway of those days. Second, the Norwegian folk instrument par excellence was, and still is, the hardingfele, the Hardanger fiddle. Norway was then part of the kingdom of Sweden (it won independence only in 1905): when Bull, a figure of international importance as a symbol of Norwegian identity, incorporated slåtter and other elements of the hardingfele dance repertoire in his concert pieces, the circle was completed—the sound of the violin had become the sound of Norway, and of its desire for independence.

It nevertheless took Grieg a little while to marry form and folk. His Violin Sonata No 1 in F major, Op 8, was composed in 1865, when Grieg was twenty-two. It begins with two chords in the piano—an echo, conscious or otherwise, of the two chords (Beethoven’s drastic compression of the introduction to the Classical symphony) that launch the Eroica Symphony. There’s another Beethoven connection, too: the key, F major, is the same as that of Beethoven’s ‘Spring’ Sonata, and indeed there is a spring-like freshness about Grieg’s invention throughout this work. He tackled sonata-form not on its own ground but by overwhelming it with a profusion of lyrical ideas. Even so, he is careful to set them in context: he could, for example, have begun the work with the Allegro con brio idea that launches the movement proper—but those two chords, in E minor and A minor (the tonic and subdominant triads of E minor), immediately give it the feel of the sun coming out from behind the clouds, highlighting its rustic charm. Again and again you can hear Grieg standing back from the onward rush of melody with a brief gesture that enhances its effect. Although there are discreet echoes of Norwegian folk-music in the first movement (not least in the modal inflections of much of the melodic material), it is not until the second—which is both slow movement and aba scherzo and trio—that he explicitly simulates the music of the hardingfele, with the trio presenting the double-stopping and pedal points of a springar. But the outer sections feature another Grieg fingerprint, also folk-derived: a falling three-note figure, a minor second followed by a major third—here A, G sharp, E, but you also have it at the start of the opening tune of the Piano Concerto, for example. It occurs in Grieg’s music so often that it is sometimes referred to as the ‘Grieg motif’ or ‘Grieg formula’. The finale, like the first movement, builds its structure from a chain of three contrasting melodies that sparkle like a mountain waterfall.

Grieg himself played the piano in the first performance of the work, in Leipzig in mid-November 1865, during a stop-over on his way to Italy; the violinist was the Swede Anders Petterson. The next year Peters, the Leipzig publisher, issued the piece in a timorous print-run of 125 copies. It was probably one of those, though, which brought the work to Liszt’s attention, occasioning this letter to Grieg:

I am glad to be able to tell you of the sincere pleasure that I have derived from reading through your Sonata, Op 8. It bears witness to a talent for composition—vigorous, reflective, inventive, and of excellent material—which has only to follow its own way to rise to the heights. I assume that in your own country you receive the success and encouragement you deserve. You will not lack these elsewhere, either: and if you come to Germany this winter, I warmly invite you to visit Weimar for a while, so that we may get to know each other.
(F. Liszt, 29 December [18]68, Rome)

Much had happened to Grieg in the meantime, the most important event being his marriage to his cousin, Nina Hagerup, in the summer of 1867; the Violin Sonata No 2 in G major, Op 13, was written in the three weeks of his honeymoon—small wonder it is such a happy piece. The Norwegian folk manner was now a natural part of his vocabulary, and the Second Violin Sonata is impregnated with its contours. Both outer movements contain elements of the springar—though the first is introduced by a gloomy Lento doloroso in G minor, setting the scene, as in the First Sonata, for the buoyant G major tune, Allegro vivace, which follows. The secondary theme—with the ‘Grieg motif’ prominent—offers a harmonic contrast (it is in the upper mediant, B minor) but is built on the same thematic material; the third tune is in the dominant, D major. After the generous exposition, Grieg keeps the development short, varies the material in the recapitulation, announces the coda in the grand manner and signs off with a confident flourish. The slow movement of the Second Sonata is likewise in ABA form, the E minor outer sections (constructed from the dotted four-note shape in the first bar) surrounding the E major middle panel (also generated from that same shape). The finale maintains the formal evolution of the first movement: it is an individual amalgam of sonata-form and rondo, once again contrasting the rhythmic–melodic motivic interrelationships of the melodic material with more dramatic harmonic shifts.

The Second Violin Sonata was dedicated to Johan Svendsen, Grieg’s comrade-in-art, although it was premiered by Gudbrand Böhn, again with the composer at the piano, in the autumn of 1867.

Although there were only two years between the first two violin sonatas, the Violin Sonata No 3 in C minor, Op 45, was not to follow for almost two decades: the last piece of chamber music he completed, it was composed—at Grieg’s home, Troldhaugen, outside Bergen—in the second half of 1886, just spilling into the first days of 1887.

The dark tone of No 3 sets it a considerable distance away from the lyrical enthusiasms of its two predecessors. Its formal subtlety is striking; and the explicit nationalism, intermittent in the First, thoroughgoing in the Second, has given way to the ‘wider horizon’ of which Grieg wrote to Bjørnson. Here too, though, Grieg works his material with considerable subtlety: the first two subjects, which sound so different, are carved from the same shape, rooted in the ‘Grieg motif’; the development likewise sets off with a varied version of the first motif of the first subject. The music seems to stall briefly, as if in the eye of the hurricane, before the opening motif insists on its space, leading to an extended discussion of the different incarnations of its genetic material. The coda initially suggests the triumph of lyricism, over the arpeggiated chords heard early in the development, but the mood again darkens and the movement ends bleakly.

That grim, dissonant close contrasts all the more effectively with the light-filled melody in E major which opens the slow movement (as with the earlier two sonatas, it is also in ABA form)—one of Grieg’s happiest inspirations, and he was not a man short of happy inspirations. The brooding atmosphere of the central section, in the tonic minor, so starkly contrasts with its outer panels that once again the thematic interconnections are effectively disguised.

The finale shows Grieg once more rewriting form to his own ends: he builds it from two expository sections which are then repeated—the development is dispensed with entirely. It opens with the violin stomping out a march-rhythm over the piano’s broken chords (open fifths) before the instruments begin an increasingly furious exchange of ideas. It is quite some time—112 bars—before the pace slackens enough for the secondary theme to inch forward, a broad, yearning tune that begins low in the violin and gradually climbs upwards, falling back to allow the opening march-rhythms to resume. The Prestissimo coda transforms the angry opening theme into an exultant C major affirmation, swirling breathlessly to the close.

Grieg again played the piano part in the premiere, in the Leipzig Gewandhaus on 10 December 1887; the violinist was the eminent Adolph Brodsky, who had given the first performance of the Tchaikovsky Concerto six years earlier (and was later head of the Royal Manchester School of Music). The Third Sonata was immediately popular among domestic as well as professional music-makers: within months of its appearance it had sold 1,500 copies, and it has been a recital favourite of the world’s major violinists ever since.

It stands to reason that if Grieg—the pianist who wrote idiomatically for the violin—was happier writing miniatures than sonata-structures, he would produce a gratifying amount of shorter pieces for violin and piano. Reason, though, has nothing to do with it: Grieg’s only other piece for violin and piano is a number from his incidental music to Bjørnson’s drama Sigurd Jorsalfar, Op 22, of 1872. In these purist days our historically informed violinists would simply shrug their shoulders and bemoan their lot. But a century ago musicians had more capacious appetites, and transcriptions were part of the normal musical diet. Joseph Achron, born in Lazdijai in Lithuania (then under Russian-Polish rule, as Lozdzieje) in 1886, first appeared as a prodigy violinist in Warsaw at the age of seven and studied violin with Leopold Auer and composition with Liadov in St Petersburg. Before his emigration to the United States in 1924 (from Berlin via Palestine), Achron and his pianist brother Isidor were active in the Society for Jewish Folk Music in St Petersburg, presenting concerts of music by Jewish composers; in one of them, on 14 April 1915, Jascha Heifetz (likewise a Lithuanian-born Auer student, then in his mid-teens) played Achron’s Dance Improvisation. It was natural, then, that Heifetz, a naturalized US citizen from 1925, should renew the acquaintance when Achron settled in America, and his 1926 recording of Achron’s Hebrew Melody, Op 33 (1911), with Isidor at the piano, was a popular success; he had first recorded it, with orchestral accompaniment, in December 1917.

But the connection with Norway predates their re-acquaintance in America. In the years before the Russian Revolution of 1917, their teacher, Leopold Auer, set up a summer school in Oslo (then called Kristiania), where his students would have deepened any acquaintance of Grieg’s music they had already formed in Russia. Achron made a number of transcriptions during this period of his life (including one of Mendelssohn’s ‘On the Wings of Song’ which Heifetz later made popular, recording it as early as October 1918), and the absence of Grieg original miniatures for violin and piano must have made them an obvious target. He produced a total of seven Grieg transcriptions. The six included here are ‘Dance from Jölster’, the fifth of the 25 Norwegian Folksongs and Dances, Op 17 (1869); ‘Lonely Wanderer’ and ‘At Home’, the second and third of the six pieces that make up the third series of Lyric Pieces, Op 43; ‘Grandmother’s Minuet’, the second of the ninth series of Lyric Pieces, Op 68; ‘Puck’ (the original Norwegian title, Småtroll, means ‘Little Troll’), third of the tenth series, Op 71; and the Scherzo-Impromptu, No 2 of the seven Stemninger (‘Moods’), Op 73.

Norway was to come to Auer’s aid, too, when in June 1917, after forty-nine years as professor of violin at the St Petersburg Conservatoire, he fled the upheavals of the Revolution and ostensibly went on holiday to Norway; in the event, he continued westwards, taking a boat for New York in February the next year. When in 1925 Carl Fischer of New York published six of Achron’s Grieg arrangements (the Scherzo-Impromptu followed a year later), Achron, Auer and Heifetz had all settled in the United States.

Martin Anderson © 2006

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