Hyperion Records

Sonata for violin and piano
1947-9, revised 1949/50

'Walton: Chamber Music' (CDA67340)
Walton: Chamber Music
Buy by post £10.50 CDA67340 
Movement 01: Allegro tranquillo
Movement 02: Tema: Andante
Movement 03: Variation 1: A tempo poco più mosso
Movement 04: Variation 2: A tempo quasi improvisando
Movement 05: Variation 3: Alla marcia molto vivace
Movement 06: Variation 4: Allegro molto
Movement 07: Variation 5: Allegretto con moto
Movement 08: Variation 6: Scherzando
Movement 09: Variation 7: Andante tranquillo
Movement 10: Coda: Molto vivace – Presto

Sonata for violin and piano
The Violin Sonata arose out of a period of turmoil and change in the composer’s life. Its composition was begun in 1947 under tragic circumstances arising from the illness of Alice, Lady Wimborne, with whom he had been having a relationship since 1934. It was not completed until 1949, almost a year after her death, by which time he had met and married a young Argentinian, Susanna Gil.

In 1947 Alice Wimborne was unwell, but her doctor could find nothing wrong. That September she and Walton set out for a holiday in Italy, but they only got as far as Lucerne when her condition worsened. Cancer of the bronchus was diagnosed and she was admitted to hospital. In the immediate post-war years obtaining finances at a distance from home presented considerable difficulties and Walton was desperately worried about how the costs of her treatment would be paid. Recalling the situation in a letter to Angus Morrison in 1969, Walton wrote that by chance he met Diana Gould, who was shortly to become the wife of Yehudi Menuhin, and having explained his plight to her she promptly commissioned on Menuhin’s behalf a sonata for him and her brother-in-law, the pianist Louis Kentner.

Menuhin duly advanced him half of the commission fee and Walton set to work. Composition on the sonata though was interrupted by writing the film score for Olivier’s Hamlet and then by the final harrowing stage of Alice Wimborne’s illness. He resumed work on the sonata after her death on 19 April 1948. Although Walton made no outward reference to his feelings following his loss, it is hard not to hear, in at least the first movement of the sonata, a musical reaction. It was first performed in Zürich by Menuhin and Kentner on 30 September 1949, after which Walton made some revisions, and this definitive version was first heard at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, London, on 5 February 1950, played by the same artists.

Despite the sporadic nature of its composition, set against such a varied set of personal circumstances, the work is highly concentrated and stands as one of Walton’s finest achievements. Over a gentle lapping piano accompaniment, the violin plays a lyrical theme that is full of tenderness. A tiny semiquaver gruppetto heard at the beginning of the melody is important in the subsequent thematic development, not only in the first movement, but in the work as a whole, as is a second version of the gruppetto two bars later. The first paragraph ends with an emphatic phrase for piano, then violin, that thrusts upwards, before the pianist introduces the second principal idea. This is not so much of a contrast, however, and it seems to inhabit the same mood established at the outset, particularly as it ends with its own version of the gruppetto that is shot through with a heartrending poignancy. True contrast comes with an agitated appearance of the gruppetto beginning with an upward major seventh (a Walton hallmark) which initiates an assertive and dynamic passage with accents on and off the beat for violin and piano respectively.

In the ebb and flow of the development both instruments share the exploration of the musical material, with the violin making much of the gruppetto as it strives to soar ever higher. Walton caps the movement in inspired fashion, with an extended, contemplative coda in which the violin takes a final look at the main theme against the arpeggiated chords of the piano played with the soft pedal. Its outward tranquillity masks, nevertheless, an undeniable sense of loss lying beneath the surface.

The form of the second movement is a theme and variations. The eight-bar ‘Tema’ is self-contained in character, with none of the expansiveness that marked the first movement’s principal theme. The piano alone then concludes the main material with a chromatic melody that embraces first ten, then all twelve notes of the chromatic scale. Some commentators have alluded to this as a series, but Walton does not exploit them in any Schoenbergian sense.

In the first variation the theme is heard in the context of a different rhythm, 6/8, and is set in spare two-part counterpoint with the piano. The marking for Variation 2, a tempo quasi improvisando, gives the clue to its character, and it culminates in an impassioned outpouring from the violin. Variation 3 is a spiky march featuring double stopping on the violin and ending with a dissonant extension for piano alone. In Variation 4 the instruments tumble helter-skelter in unison and octaves, whilst Variation 5 has the violin playing steady pizzicato quavers against the piano’s florid arabesques. It ends with a short unaccompanied cadenza for the violin. The sixth variation, Scherzando, is appropriately swift and charged with rhythmic energy. Variation 7 is the longest: set to alternating 6/8 and 9/8 rhythms, it has a lilting barcarolle-like quality. The piano begins the coda with what seems like a twelve-note fugal subject; the violin however, does not take up the challenge with an answering subject, merely repeating it cheekily before launching both itself and the piano in a pyrotechnical display of bravura panache.

from notes by Andrew Burn © 2002

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