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Violin Sonata No 2 in E flat major, Op 102

'Saint-Saëns: Music for violin and piano' (CDA67100)
Saint-Saëns: Music for violin and piano
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Movement 1: Poco allegro
Movement 2: Scherzo
Movement 3: Andante
Movement 4: Allegro grazioso

Violin Sonata No 2 in E flat major, Op 102
If Sonata No 1 represents the romantic, Lisztian side of Saint-Saëns, then the Sonata No 2 in E flat major, completed eleven years later, shows equally clearly his classical leaning. It was first heard at a concert held in 1896 to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of his first public performance as an eleven-year-old. Sarasate, Saint-Saëns’s friend and colleague for over thirty-five years, played the violin part of the new sonata, and the composer also gave the first performance of his Fifth Piano Concerto.

With its regular formal outlines, the clear diatonic harmony of its opening bars and its Beethovenian motivic play, the sonata could be seen as a conscious attempt to recreate classical ideals, but Saint-Saëns avoids any sense of imitation or pastiche. In the first movement there are continual modulations, often quite unexpected and unconventional, and a remarkably free use of non-harmonic notes—notes that are foreign to the underlying chords. Together, these create a richly varied musical tapestry, the texture clearing every now and then to reveal a simple diatonic phrase.

The energetic Scherzo shows a classic regularity of form, with both scherzo and trio sections cast in the time-honoured binary pattern. The trio is one of several passages to show Saint-Saëns’s growing preoccupation with counterpoint; it’s in the form of a three-part canon, at the unusual interval of a 7th. The Andante encloses another miniature scherzo, or ‘Allegretto scherzando’, as its middle section. Here, as well as in the episodes of the Rondo finale, one feels that Saint-Saëns is adapting his beloved Rameau’s idea of the short character piece to a more modern idiom. In the Andante’s outer sections, the violin sings a long, dreamy melody above a piano accompaniment whose continual rising scales blur the harmony in an impressionistic way. Saint-Saëns disliked his younger contemporary Debussy’s music intensely, yet here he comes quite close to a Debussian fascination with sonority for its own sake. The final movement echoes the wide-ranging modulations of the opening Poco allegro, but in a lighter, less closely-worked style.

from notes by Duncan Druce © 1999

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