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Viola Sonata

1942; composed for a dedicated to William Primrose; the orchestrally accompanied version is entitled Elegy, Waltz and Toccata

The Viola Sonata was composed for and dedicated to William Primrose in 1942 while Benjamin was working in Vancouver, Canada: he almost simultaneously made a version for viola and orchestra under the title Elegy, Waltz and Toccata (combining the titles of the three movements, which are played without a break). Benjamin’s association with Primrose went back to 1925, when they had presented one of the earliest performances of the Violin Sonatina; and they gave a series of performances of the new Viola Sonata throughout Canada in 1942–3, beginning in Vancouver on 14 October 1942. Primrose had large hands and was said to play the viola as if it were a violin, and in this impressive and powerful work Benjamin set him many technical challenges.

This wartime Sonata also manifests a spiritual affinity with the large-scale and often elegiac Symphony that Benjamin was about to begin composing, and it contains the bleakest and perhaps the most deeply felt music in the composer's output. The opening E minor Elegy is a chill and desolate meditation whose vein of dissonance and chromatic disquiet are reminiscent of Alban Berg or Frank Bridge; the central section has sinister march music in F sharp minor, driving to an Appassionato e largamente climax with sonorous viola octaves. The transition to the central Waltz, starting with a brief rhapsodic cadenza and then pitting viola pizzicato against piano trills, is powerfully and imaginatively achieved, and the waltz music itself, marked quasi improvisatore and con morbidezza, is a phosphorescent and fretful affair that sustains the dark mood of the opening movement, the viola’s circling triplets suggesting a moth beating its wings against a window, unable to escape. Against it Benjamin juxtaposes a quicker, frostily glittering episode, quoting the urgent march theme, that starts up as if offering a would-be playful contrast, but rapidly turns hectic and sinister, stopping just short of catastrophe. The reprise of the waltz music also refers to the opening Elegy in its impassioned transition to the finale. This is the Toccata, which begins in powerful, almost mechanistic style but soon turns into a chattery and boisterously dancing piece that gives both performers a strenuous work-out while overturning the prevailing moods of the previous two movements and replacing them with one of pugnacious but basically good-humoured determination. The music culminates with a breathtaking coda in E major. This masterly work is one of the finest viola sonatas of the twentieth century.

from notes by Calum MacDonald © 2014


Benjamin (A): Violin Sonatina & Viola Sonata
Studio Master: CDA67969Studio Master FLAC & ALAC downloads available


Movement 1: Elegy: Adagio e mesto
Movement 2: Waltz: Quasi improvisatore –
Movement 3: Toccata: Allegro ma non troppo

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