Hyperion Records

Viola Sonata in C minor
November 1823 to February 1824

'Beethoven, Mendelssohn & Schumann: Music for viola and piano' (CDA66946)
Beethoven, Mendelssohn & Schumann: Music for viola and piano
Movement 1: Adagio – Allegro
Movement 2: Menuetto: Allegro molto
Movement 3a: Andante con variazioni
Movement 3b: Variation 1
Movement 3c: Variation 2
Movement 3d: Variation 3
Movement 3e: Variation 4
Movement 3f: Variation 5
Movement 3g: Variation 6
Movement 3h: Variation 7
Movement 3i: Variation 8
Movement 3j: Allegro molto

Viola Sonata in C minor
Mendelssohn’s Viola Sonata in C minor was written between November 1823 and February 1824. The fifteen-year-old composer’s choice of key may have been inspired by Beethoven’s important corpus of works in C minor, including the Violin Sonata, Op 30 No 2; he certainly seems to have felt impelled here to accentuate the traditionally dark and troubled connotations of C minor with a rich vein of chromaticism. And just as Beethoven’s Op 8 was to re-emerge in its arrangement as Op 42, so part of Mendelssohn’s Sonata was destined to receive a new identity as early as March 1824 when the composer reworked the Menuetto as the third movement of his Symphony No 1 in C minor, Op 11 (he also reinvented the theme of the variations for his great Variations sérieuses, Op 54). The Symphony was published in 1828; the Viola Sonata itself remained unpublished until 1966.

The overall scheme of the work bears extended discussion. Taken by itself, the sequence of movement titles seems to suggest an orthodox four-movement sonata, notwithstanding the (common) reversal of the customary order of the inner pair. But this is deceptive, since the closing Allegro molto is not an independent piece but a virtuosic coda to the series of variations that forms the third movement. Nor is that movement itself without sign of an original approach to a form that can lead easily to inconsequential, repetitive and static structures. The theme already moves beyond the commonplace in its 8 + 10 bar structure, and the individual variations are prevented from being isolated one from the next by Mendelssohn’s linkage technique, which ensures a seamless continuity from beginning to end. The harmonic structure of the theme begins to be modified as early as Variation 4, until with Variation 8 (Adagio in contrast to the preceding Andante) it is set completely aside in favour of a free rhapsodic section, in C major rather than minor, scored largely for piano solo: the effect is as of a Lied ohne Worte being suddenly intruded upon the scene. This section provides the perfect foil for the closing minor-key coda, to which it is connected by a recitative passage given over largely to the viola.

These events at the end of the third and final movement of the Sonata may be conceived as a kind of magnification of the scheme of the first movement. This is a relatively straightforward sonata design with the main Allegro being preceded by a slow introduction. In the recapitulation, the second-group material is brought back in the tonic major (C major). Rather than closing in that key, however, a short coda using material that had not been recapitulated reintroduces C minor, just as at the end of the work. This first-movement coda, though, is pianissimo; the music simply fades away. And the quiet ending at this stage throws additional weight on to the third-movement coda: it responds not only to the third movement but to the first also. In organizing the Sonata along these lines Mendelssohn was both demonstrating his understanding of the end-weighted dynamic structures so powerfully exploited by Beethoven and also foreshadowing the importance as a closural device of the virtuosic coda in the mature works of some of his contemporaries, such as the first and fourth of Chopin’s Ballades.

from notes by Nicholas Marston © 1997

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