Movement 1: Ziemlich langsam – Lebhaft
Movement 2: Sehr lebhaft
Movement 3: Leise, einfach
Movement 4: Bewegt
You know how expressively Clara interprets his [Schumann’s] music. I have extraordinary joy in playing Robert’s works with her, and I only wish you could share this joy … I must not fail to tell you about the new Sonata in D minor which Breitkopf & Härtel will bring out very soon. We played it from the proof-sheets. I consider it one of the finest compositions of our times in respect of its marvellous unity of feeling and its thematic significance. It overflows with noble passion, almost harsh and bitter in expression, and the last movement reminds one of the sea with its glorious waves of sound.
The work begins with a majestic slow introduction. The melodic outline of its initial chords (they are to return at the close of the Allegro’s exposition, in a manner which implies a close tempo relationship between the two sections) gives rise to the opening theme of the main body of the movement; and even the broader second subject affords little real contrast of mood. Both subjects, together with a syncopated descending scale idea that separates them, are explored at length in the turbulent central development section; while in the coda the music’s agitation increases still further.
If Schumann had provided his A minor Sonata with a central intermezzo-like slow movement and scherzo rolled into one, this less concise companion-piece has two self-contained middle movements which are nevertheless closely interlinked. The scherzo second movement, with its driving 6/8 rhythm, is a piece that seems to have left a strong impression on the young Brahms, whose own early C minor Scherzo for violin and piano is very similar in mood. (Brahms’s piece was composed at Schumann’s instigation, as part of a joint ‘greetings sonata’ in honour of Joachim’s visit to Düsseldorf in 1853.) Schumann’s scherzo reaches its climax with the opening phrase of the chorale melody ‘Gelobet seist du, Jesu Christ’, given out fortissimo by both players—an anticipation, as it turns out, of the gentle serenade-like theme of the following variation movement. (Both in its actual melody and the manner of its presentation, the moment is one that echoes the chorale in the finale of Mendelssohn’s C minor Piano Trio, Op 66.) Conversely, the third movement’s penultimate variation recalls both the figuration and the actual material of the scherzo; and its coda ties the pieces together still more closely, in such a way that the two seem to be inextricably interwoven. Once again, one is reminded of Brahms: this time, of his F sharp minor Piano Sonata of 1854, in which the theme of the slow movement so strikingly generates the main motif of the scherzo.
Like the opening movement, the finale, with its ‘waves of sound’ so evocatively described by Joachim, is a tumultuous sonata-form movement. This time, however, the more lyrical second subject affords genuine relief from the music’s prevailing intensity; and the piece has an extended coda in the major whose hard-won effulgence provides a splendid conclusion to the work as a whole.
from notes by Misha Donat © 2001