Prokofiev: Violin Sonata No. 2 in D Major, Op. 94a (1943, 24 minutes)

The Violin Sonata No. 2 is an arrangement of Prokofiev’s 1942 Flute Sonata in D, Op. 94. At that point Prokofiev had fled from the war. He first settled in Perm in the Ural Mountains, where a number of Soviet artists found shelter. Later he moved to Alma-Ata, the largest city in Kazakhstan, where he worked with director Sergei Eisenstein on the film Ivan the Terrible. As a break from the film, as well as his lengthy labors on the opera War and Peace and the ballet Cinderella, Prokofiev wrote the Flute Sonata, inspired by the playing of the famous French flutist Georges Barrère, whom Prokofiev had heard many years earlier while living in Paris. Prokofiev soon rearranged the work for violin for David Oistrakh, who premiered the new arrangement with pianist Lev Oborin on June 17, 1944.

Prokofiev’s dark, powerful First Violin Sonata, also written for Oistrakh and largely written during the lead-up to World War II, is quite a contrast to the generally lighthearted Second, which Prokofiev described as being “in a gentle, flowing classical style,” with a “clear, transparent sonority.” That description certainly holds for the gentle, lyrical first movement, which seems in style and mood not far from Prokofiev’s much earlier “Classical” Symphony. Light yet with a hint of irony and mischief, the second movement carries on its energetic way before an abrupt conclusion. The slow third movement, which Alan Rich described as having “the tenderness of a Mozart andante,” introduces a vaguely jazzy note in its central section. The energy picks up again for the melodic final movement, with its vigorous, dance-like character.

Borodin: String Quartet No. 2 in D major (1881, 28 minutes)

As was not unusual among Russian composers of his time, Alexander Borodin was only a part-time musician. He had a day job as a chemist, physician, and teacher, and only wrote music in his spare time. The Quartet No. 2, largely written during his summer vacation in 1881, is dedicated to Borodin’s wife Ekaterina Protopopova, possibly as an anniversary gift. In fact, the work may even have an underlying, private program related to their first meeting in Heidelberg, with the cello, which Borodin played, representing the composer and the first violin Ekaterina. While this Quartet remains popular, some of its music is perhaps most familiar from its use in the 1953 Broadway musical Kismet, which debuted in 1953 and won the 1954 Tony Award.

The first movement begins with a lyrical melody traded between the cello in its high register and the first violin. Shortly thereafter a more extended second theme is heard. The opening melody, in a lower register, starts off the development section, which features some contrapuntal interaction between the instruments. The fleet-footed Scherzo second movement is also in sonata form, with two main themes, one a descending theme in the first violin and viola, the other a waltz-like version of the viola’s previous idea that was adapted into the Kismet song “Baubles, Bangles and Beads.” The third movement Notturno’s main theme, introduced by the cello then taken up by the first violin, was also borrowed in Kismet for the song “And This Is My Beloved.” After a nervous central section, that main theme returns in an imitative canon for the cello and first violin, then the two violins. After a short introduction, the main theme of the Finale is heard in the two violins, answered by the viola and cello. Those two elements then combine into melody and accompaniment. The instruments imitate one another once again in the second theme, and more counterpoint marks the remainder of this energetic, joyful movement.

Brahms: Clarinet Trio in A minor, Op. 114 (1891, 26 minutes)

Like Mozart before him with Anton Stadler, the artistry of a particular clarinetist led Brahms to compose some of his last masterworks. Richard Mühlfeld (1856-1907) was the principal clarinetist of the Meiningen Court Orchestra. Brahms had known of Mühlfeld since the 1880s, when the Meiningen Orchestra performed several of Brahms’s works, including the premiere of the Symphony No. 4. But by late 1890, after the completion of his String Quintet No. 2, Brahms actually felt that he had retired from composing. In March 1891, he spent a week at the Meiningen court and was moved and inspired by Mühlfeld’s playing. By November Brahms had completed the Clarinet Trio and the Clarinet Quintet, Op. 115, and three years later came the two Op. 120 Clarinet Sonatas.

Brahms had great affection for Mühlfeld, sometimes referring to him as “Fraülein Klarinette” or “Fraülein Nachtigall” (Nightingale). And while there is often a feeling of melancholy in the Clarinet Trio, there is also a pervasive quality of warmth: as Brahms’s friend Eusebius Mandyczewski wrote, “It is as though the instruments were in love with each other.” Practically the entirety of the Trio’s first movement arises out of a rising arpeggio and complementary descending scale, out of which some complex counterpoint develops. The feeling is largely elegiac, occasionally restless. Switching to a brighter D major, the peaceful second movement is based on two main themes but is really a continuous outpouring of melody. The outer portions of the third movement are a nostalgic waltz, framing another dance, a Ländler, which includes a clarinet line that might remind some of yodeling. The fourth movement is short and exciting, alternating 2/4 and 6/8 time signatures in one of Brahms’s virtuoso gypsy-flavored finales.

Dvořák: String Sextet in A major, Op. 48 (1878, 32 minutes)

For nine years Dvořák was principal violist of the orchestra of the Provisional Theatre of Bohemia, and his first published work was a String Quintet in A minor (1861). So it is no surprise that he returned to writing for small groups of strings regularly throughout his life. By 1878, the year of the A major String Sextet, Dvořák had become a fairly well-known composer: each of the previous two years he had won the Austrian State Stipendium, and his first set of Slavonic Dances, Op. 46, had been very well received. Right after completing the Slavonic Dances, in the second half of May 1878, Dvořák composed the String Sextet. Johannes Brahms, who had been one of the judges for the Austrian Stipendium, had written two such sextets himself, and Dvořák’s pays homage to his mentor and friend. Brahms loved the result, calling it “infinitely beautiful” and writing of its “glorious ingenuity, freshness, and beauty of sound.” Their mutual friend Joseph Joachim also became quite a fan; his quartet and two guests also gave the Sextet its first public performance in Berlin on November 9, 1879.

While some intensity builds in its central development section, for the most part the first movement is flowing and warm-hearted. The melancholy second movement, with its contrasting march- and polka-like rhythms, is in the form of a Dumka, a kind of folk ballad originally from Ukraine that alternates slow, sad passages with faster ones. Dvořák’s Slavonic Dances are evoked in the third movement, a Furiant (a fast-paced Bohemian dance). A rather sad little minuet theme is the basis of the fourth movement’s theme and variations, which move from gossamer lightness to darkness and mystery before a playful, energetic coda.

Program Notes by Chris Morrison