Movement 1: Moderato
Movement 2: Andante espressivo
Movement 3: Passacaglia: Allegro moderato ma energico
A hint of the spacious Impressionism of Respighi’s orchestral writing can be heard in the wide-ranging piano theme that opens the Andante espressivo in E major, the emotional heart of the work. The violin then weaves a tranquil melody over a varied version of the piano theme, before the music becomes more animated (a section marked Appassionato, in triple time). The opening idea anchors much of what follows, working towards a massive climax before returning to the serenity of the opening.
The finale begins with a stern statement of the Passacaglia theme on which it is based, marked by powerful dotted rhythms. What follows is a brilliantly inventive exploration of the musical possibilities of both the form—a Baroque variation structure that had already inspired composers as different as Brahms (the finale of the Fourth Symphony) and Ravel (the slow movement of the Piano Trio)—and the theme itself. Respighi’s music here is entirely original (with a fondness for unusual phrase lengths—even in the theme, which is two bars longer than we might expect), but his model was certainly Brahms: the last movement of the Fourth Symphony has a very similar tempo marking (Brahms’s is Allegro energico e passionato), takes a comparably free and creative approach to writing variations on a ground bass, and ends with a faster, muscular coda that dramatically reaffirms the minor key.
The first performance of the B minor Sonata was given in Bologna on 3 March 1918, played by Respighi’s old teacher, Federico Sarti, with the composer himself at the piano. Respighi was delighted, writing to his old friend (a fellow-pupil in Sarti’s class) Arrigo Serato: ‘Inni! Non faccio per dire, ma abbiamo suonato bene. Io compreso!’ (‘Praise be! I shouldn’t say so, but we played it well. Me included!’). It was published by Ricordi the following year and soon enjoyed international success. Bronislaw Huberman, with pianist Paul Frankel, gave a recital in Chicago on 24 January 1923 which included an early American performance. It was described by Edward Moore in the Chicago Daily Tribune as being of interest for several reasons: ‘Quite outside of its own merits, which were many, this sonata served to indicate how the new generation of Italian composers is labouring to get away from the theory that Italian music means Italian opera … Respighi has written rather a good sonata … conceived along broad lines and on large ideas.’ The music of this Sonata is highly individual, demonstrating a more concentrated and intimate kind of instrumental mastery than does his more public, more spectacular orchestral music.
from notes by Nigel Simeone © 2012