Beethoven: Cello Sonata in G minor, Op. 5/2 (1796, 25 minutes)

Both of the Op. 5 sonatas were composed in Berlin, while Beethoven was on a concert tour, and were dedicated to Friedrich Wilhelm II, King of Prussia and an enthusiastic amateur cellist for whom both Mozart and Haydn had written string quartets. (In return for the sonatas, Beethoven apparently received from the King a gold snuffbox filled with louis d’or, or French gold pieces.) Both works were probably first performed by Beethoven and Jean-Pierre Duport, the King’s cello teacher and principal cellist in the King’s orchestra, or perhaps Jean-Pierre’s younger brother Jean-Louis.

In that time, sonatas for piano and a second instrument usually highlighted the piano, with the other instrument taking more of an accompaniment role. This remains true in Beethoven’s Op. 5, among the first sonatas for this combination of instruments, although the cello is quickly becoming an equal partner. Both of the Op. 5 sonatas are in two movements. Each first movement begins with a slow introduction, in the case of Op. 5/2 a particularly lengthy, mysterious and dramatic one. When the music speeds, it is with a brief theme that begins in a restrained manner but soon builds, leading to a more graceful second theme shaped in the opposite way from the first. The second movement, in a playful major key, is in rondo form and is a virtuoso vehicle for both instruments.

Schumann: Violin Sonata No. 1 in A minor, Op. 105 (1851, 18 minutes)

The first of Schumann’s two violin sonatas was written in just a few days in the middle of September 1851, not long after Schumann had taken a conducting post in Dusseldorf that had caused him many frustrations. In fact, he told a friend that he wrote the Sonata while “extremely angry with certain people.” Toward the end of his creative life, Schumann turned frequently to the solo violin, composing the two sonatas in 1851 as well two works with orchestra, the Fantasie and the Concerto, in 1853. It wasn’t long after that Schumann was institutionalized for his mental health issues, eventually dying in an asylum in 1858.

Some hear intimations of those mental problems in the turbulence and often tragic tone of the Violin Sonata No. 1. Marked “With passionate expression,” the first movement begins with a surging, restless theme introduced by the violin, with fast-paced accompaniment from the piano. Schumann subjects this and a second theme to development and canonic, or imitative, treatment, with frequent and surprising changes of key. The middle movement, a combined slow movement and Scherzo, is in rondo form, with three statements of a couple of short, gentle, poignant themes and two contrasting folk dance-like interludes. Sixteenth notes dominate the fiery third movement. The pace relents only briefly, once with a particularly beautiful hymn-like melody. But it is a brief respite as the restless mood returns. Toward the end, there is a short, eerie reminder of the Sonata’s opening theme before the pace quickens for the work’s dramatic conclusion.

Stravinsky: Suite italienne (after Pulcinella) (1933, 18 minutes)

The Suite italienne is an arrangement of several movements from the ballet Pulcinella, composed in 1919-20 and based on themes attributed to the Italian Baroque composer Giovanni Battista Pergolesi that Stravinsky rearranged and reharmonized in his own distinctive way. That original ballet, suggested by Sergei Diaghilev for his Ballets Russes company and featuring sets and costumes by Pablo Picasso and choreography by Leonide Massine, was a big hit and announced Stravinsky’s neoclassical period. The original Suite italienne, composed for cello and piano for the great cellist Gregor Piatigorsky, was later transcribed and adapted for violin and piano with Polish-American violinist Samuel Dushkin (who had also worked with Stravinsky on the latter’s Violin Concerto).

The Suite begins, as does the ballet, with a stately Introduzione. The soulful Serenata is essentially an aria for the cello. Contrarily, the movement actually titled Aria is mostly rather lively and energetic, but with its lyrical elements. Cello and piano toss material back and forth in the vivacious Tarantella. The last two movements are linked: the calm Minuetto builds to a climax that announces the faster, energetic Finale.

Program Notes by Chris Morrison