Movement 1: Introduzione: Un poco adagio – Allegro vivace
Movement 2: Aria
Movement 3: Scherzo e Intermezzo: Allegrissimo – Lento
Movement 4: Allegro un poco maestoso
The Allegro is dominated by what Schumann called his ‘fandango’ idea. The only significant contrast is provided by a smooth theme in the major that emerges at the end of the exposition, fulfilling the role of a traditional second subject. Even here, though, the falling fifth motif, with its dotted rhythm surviving intact, is absorbed as an accompanimental figure.
Schumann describes the slow movement as an ‘Aria’, and it is in fact based on a song he had written as an eighteen-year-old student. (The song, An Anna, to a poem by Justinus Kerner, was not published until Brahms included it in the supplement to the collected edition of Schumann’s works, issued in 1893.) In Schumann’s piano setting the beginning of the melody significantly unfolds over a sustained perfect fifth in the bass, and its delicate air of understatement is underlined by the marking of senza passione, ma espressivo. When Liszt reviewed the sonata for the Paris Gazette musicale (alongside the F minor Sonata, Op 14, and the Impromptus on a Theme of Clara Wieck, Op 5) he singled out the slow movement for special praise, describing it as ‘a song of great passion, expressed with fullness and calm’. The falling fifths that punctuate the melody are not found in the original song, and were clearly added in order to stress the unity of the sonata’s opening pair of movements.
Behind the framework of the third movement lies the notion of a through-composed scherzo with two trios. The tempo quickens for the first quasi-trio whose opening bars are underpinned by the first movement’s ‘rocking’ fifths motif, played pianissimo leggierissimo. The second trio—or ‘Intermezzo’ as Schumann calls it—is written very much tongue-in-cheek. It abruptly abandons the agitated, adventurous style of the piece thus far in favour of what seems to be a parody of the old-fashioned school. The episode is, in essence, an absurdly heavy-handed polonaise, and Schumann marks it, appropriately enough, Alla burla, ma pomposo. There is little doubt that we are here face to face with a Papillon—perhaps an extract from the lost set of ‘XII Burlesken (burle) in the style of Papillons’ which Schumann had sent to the publishers Breitkopf und Härtel in 1832.
There is a further surprise in store before the scherzo is allowed to return, in the shape of an orchestrally inclined recitative complete with a ‘Papillon’ that takes flight on the oboe before being angrily dismissed by the full band. And to add to the confusion, the scherzo returns at the wrong pitch before being thrown into the correct key a couple of bars later—a typically Schumannesque touch.
There are more orchestral sonorities in the finale: tremolos deep in the bass register while above them the texture gradually increases in weight, like a crescendo over a drum roll; a staccato passage near the close, marked quasi pizzicato; tutti chords punched out at top speed (one of several features in the piece that make it a formidable technical challenge to the pianist). This sonata-rondo based on a duple-metre theme forced into the strait-jacket of three beats to the bar was, in fact, the first part of the sonata to be composed. If it lacks the coherence and dramatic sweep of the opening movement, the music’s élan and inventiveness carry the listener unfailingly through to its triumphant F sharp major conclusion.
from notes by Misha Donat © 1996