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Violin Sonata No 3 in A minor, WoO27
late 1853; sometimes given as WoO2; the Intermezzo and Finale were originally composed as part of the Schumann-Brahms-Dietrich collaborative F-A-E (Frei aber einsam) Sonata in honour of Joseph Joachim

'Schumann: Music for cello & piano' (CDA67661)
Schumann: Music for cello & piano
Movement 1: Ziemlich langsam – [Lebhaft]
Movement 2: Scherzo: Lebhaft
Movement 3: Intermezzo: Bewegt, doch nicht zu schnell
Movement 4: Finale: Markiertes, ziemlich lebhaftes Tempo

Violin Sonata No 3 in A minor, WoO27
The Third Violin Sonata has had a chequered history, to put it mildly. In late September 1853, both Robert and Clara were thrilled by the visit of a charismatic young man called Johannes Brahms, who appeared at their home bearing a letter of recommendation from the great violinist Joseph Joachim. Joachim himself was to follow a few weeks later, and his imminent arrival suggested a pleasing project to Schumann: he would combine with Brahms and another young disciple, Albert Dietrich, to compose a violin sonata based on the letters of Joachim’s personal motto: ‘F–A–E’ (‘frei aber einsam’—‘free but alone’). Joachim had to play it through on his arrival, his rather easy task being to identify the composers of each movement. Schumann himself contributed the Sonata’s slow movement—an Intermezzo—and the finale, while Dietrich composed the first movement and Brahms the Scherzo. Shortly afterwards, during the last three days of October, Schumann added two further movements to replace those by Brahms and Dietrich, and thus completed his own Violin Sonata No 3. It was to be his last surviving major work.

At first, Clara, Joachim and Brahms declared themselves delighted by the Sonata, and by the Romances for cello that Schumann wrote at the beginning of November. It was only much later that Clara came to associate this music with her husband’s madness; in addition to destroying the Romances, she very probably made away with the fair copy of the first movement and Scherzo of the Third Violin Sonata. (The two Schumann movements written for the original collaborative ‘F–A–E’ Sonata had presumably been too widely disseminated by then for her to recall all the copies.) Luckily, full sketches of the two missing movements survived; an edition of the Sonata was finally published in 1956, the centenary of Schumann’s death. The exact notation of some passages is still open to question, because of the unpolished nature of the manuscript. (Even the order of movements is not entirely clear; it is possible that the Intermezzo was supposed to precede the Scherzo—though I cannot believe it.) But on the whole, we can be sure that the editions available today contain the text of the Sonata as Schumann intended it. Only one bar of the piano part of the first movement is missing in the sketch; and we are very grateful to Thomas Adès, who kindly re-composed it for us.

The Sonata is an extraordinary piece—strange, certainly, but fascinating (and addictive!). From the grand opening chords of the introduction we know that this is an important statement, as if Schumann knew that it was to be a valedictory work. This is music of extreme contrasts: the wild passion of the first movement is interrupted by the quiet second subject, imbued with the very special intimacy that sets Schumann apart from any other composer. The second movement is highly original, even experimental: it is impossible to tell whether the scherzo section lasts for only eight bars, and is followed by two trios, or whether the first ‘trio’ section is in fact the main scherzo, with a singing melody above the dancing rhythm. The Intermezzo is touching, magical—surely there is a strong sense of farewell here? The finale, meanwhile, is touched throughout with eccentric humour, highlights including a crazy fugue that occupies the entire development section, and a coda that explodes into an astonishing blaze of virtuoso fireworks. (Poor Joachim must have suffered a mild cardiac arrest when he was called upon to read it at sight!) It is a fitting conclusion to a work that rounds off Schumann’s career as a composer of large-scale forms.

There are three main reasons for my having made this transcription: number one, because Schumann’s rather low-register writing for the violin sounds higher, and therefore more brilliant, when transferred to the cello; number two, because the cello deserves some recompense for the cruelly stolen Romances; and number three, because violinists so rarely play this work that they have only themselves to blame if cellists steal it! Oh, and number four: because I adore it.

from notes by Steven Isserlis © 2009

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Details for CDA67661 track 8
Intermezzo: Bewegt, doch nicht zu schnell
Recording date
30 June 2008
Recording venue
Henry Wood Hall, London, United Kingdom
Recording producer
Andrew Keener
Recording engineer
Simon Eadon
Hyperion usage
  1. Schumann: Music for cello & piano (CDA67661)
    Disc 1 Track 8
    Release date: March 2009
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