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Piano Sonata in A flat major, Op 125
1843; dedicated to Mendelssohn

'Spohr & Onslow: Piano Sonatas' (CDA67947)
Spohr & Onslow: Piano Sonatas
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Movement 1: Allegro moderato
Movement 2: Romanze
Movement 3: Scherzo – Trio
Movement 4: Finale: Allegretto

Piano Sonata in A flat major, Op 125
Before he became internationally famous as a composer, Spohr had made his name as one of the greatest violinists of his generation, a German rival to Paganini. His keyboard technique, though, was rudimentary, and he initially regarded the piano as a mere salon instrument. After hearing the latest English Broadwoods in London in 1820 he relented, and composed a Quintet for Piano and Wind, with the keyboard part fashioned for his first wife Dorette, who for health reasons had had to abandon her career as a harpist. Chopin pronounced the quintet ‘beautiful’, but complained that it was awkwardly written for the piano, with no understanding of fingering. Only after Spohr had married the twenty-eight-year-old Marianne Pfeiffer in January 1836, following Dorette’s death, was his interest in the piano re-kindled. As he recalled in his autobiography, he came to know many works for piano and violin through playing them with Marianne at their Kassel home; and over the next few years he wrote violin sonatas, piano trios and then, in 1843, his sole piano sonata, dedicated to Mendelssohn, who duly responded with a letter of warm appreciation. By now his writing for the instrument had become more idiomatic, with the fingering problems noted by Chopin ironed out.

For all the dizzying pyrotechnics of his violin works, Spohr’s was an essentially easy-going musical temperament. Written against the background of a minuet, the sonata’s opening Allegro moderato eschews strenuous thematic development for a succession of leisurely variants on the opening cantabile melody, interspersed with bouts of pirouetting virtuosity. The idiom may strike us as neo-Mozartian, spiced—perhaps decorated is a better word—with harmony more consistently chromatic than in Mozart. In some of Spohr’s works the chromaticism can become a cloying mannerism (Beethoven reportedly found his music ‘too rich in dissonances’). Here, though, the music retains a certain innocent freshness. But the range of modulation is enterprising, as ever with Spohr; and there is a beautiful moment in the coda where the music dips, with a sudden pianissimo, from A flat to a rich and strange F flat: a modulation to the key of the ‘flat sixth’ familiar enough in late Haydn and in Beethoven, but here exquisitely timed and placed.

Titled Romanze, the slow movement is in essence a song without words. The plaintive, faintly Schubertian outer sections, in F minor, sound like a half-echo of a folk song, while the richly textured central episode, approached via a magical side-slipping modulation, is a bel canto aria re-imagined in pianistic terms. The C minor Scherzo, with its rhythmic teasing, quickfire key shifts (the second part flirts with the remoteness of E major) and quizzical pauses, seems to pay homage to both Haydn and Beethoven. Not for the only time in the sonata, the smooth, sonorous trio suggests the textures of a string quartet. Dominated by a playful theme that refuses to settle in the home key, the finale infuses country-dance rhythms with the spirit of a caprice, not least in the bold modulatory flights of the central development.

from notes by Richard Wigmore © 2012

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