Movement 1: Allegro agitato
Movement 2: Adagio
Movement 3: Allegro moderato
Movement 4: Allegro molto
The Sonata is a broadly-conceived work, designed, like Beethoven’s ‘Kreutzer’ Sonata, to create a brilliant effect in performance, especially in the finale, with its moto perpetuo motif. The four movements are arranged in two groups of two—as Saint-Saëns was to do again the following year in the famous ‘Organ’ Symphony—so that the only break comes after the Adagio. The dark, passionate opening theme has a remarkable rhythmic freedom, with its syncopations, cross-accents, and constant changes of time-signature. Its continual development contrasts strongly with the haunting second theme which, though it appears in different keys and contexts and with changes of texture, remains unaltered in outline. Marcel Proust confessed that this sonata provided the model for the fictional sonata by Vinteuil that plays such an important part in Swann’s Way. We can identify this second theme as the ‘little phrase’ that was, in Monsieur Swann’s mind, so intensely associated with his love for Odette. Though Proust’s detailed description of a performance of the ‘Vinteuil’ sonata doesn’t quite fit the Saint-Saëns, the ‘little phrase’ does return in the finale just as M. Swann expects. It also effects the transition to the sensuous Adagio, whose main theme is beautifully formed as a dialogue between the two instruments—a dialogue where the roles are later reversed and, towards the end of the movement, elaborately decorated.
The delicate minor-key scherzo that follows is, most unusually, formed almost entirely from five-bar phrases. Saint-Saëns clearly enjoys exploring the implications of this scheme. The subdued colours of this piece provide a perfect foil to the bright D major of the finale with its dramatic contrasts and virtuosic panache.
from notes by Duncan Druce © 1999