Movement 1: Mit leidenschaftlichem Ausdruck
Movement 2: Allegretto
Movement 3: Lebhaft
Uniquely among Schumann’s major chamber works, the A minor Violin Sonata is in three rather than four movements, with the central Allegretto cunningly combining the functions of slow movement and scherzo. The first movement bears the typically Schumannesque heading Mit leidenschaftlichem Ausdruck (‘With passionate expression’), though its passion is smouldering rather than explosive, relieved by moments of wistful delicacy in the second group of themes. Its darkly surging main theme, coloured by the sonority of the violin’s rich, husky G string (time and again in the Sonata Schumann seems to be using the violin as a surrogate viola), is one of the composer’s most memorable inventions, comparable in troubled eloquence to the opening of the Cello Concerto in the same melancholy key of A minor. Throughout the movement Schumann disguises the barlines with syncopations and overlapping phrases: as so often with his music, early or late, the effect is like a picture whose lines are slightly blurred. Schumann’s veiling of clear-cut divisions is most striking at the climax of the development, where the violin twice plays a poignantly broadened version of the opening phrase, the second time an octave lower, before continuing the theme in the original tempo; the recapitulation has begun before we realize it.
With its quizzical, halting phrases and frequent pauses, the Allegretto recaptures something of the whimsical poetry of Schumann’s piano music of the 1830s. It also looks back to the Intermezzo of the Piano Concerto, in the same key of F major. Contrast comes from a doleful melody in F minor, and a scherzo-like episode that uses a frisky little rhythmic figure from the opening section to capricious ends: with its faint Hungarian gypsy flavour, this music is as uninhibitedly extrovert as the Sonata gets.
Opening with a moto perpetuo theme in free canonic imitation (shades here of a Bachian two-part invention), the finale mingles cussed energy with a certain playfulness as the instruments toss fragments of the theme to and fro. After a bout of muscular counterpoint at the start of the development, Schumann introduces a glowing cantabile for the violin in the radiant key of E major, soon underpinned by the main theme’s semiquavers. The recapitulation, breaking through from A minor to A major, seems to promise an optimistic ending. But with a sudden return to A minor the violin softly intones the opening phrase of the first movement against snatches of semiquavers from the piano—one of Schumann’s most subtle, and haunting, instances of thematic reminiscence. The moto perpetuo theme quickly asserts its supremacy, and the final pages make a show of brilliance, albeit tempered to the end by the astringency of the minor key.
from notes by Richard Wigmore © 2012