A beginning and an end – Debussy and Korngold Violin Sonatas at the Wigmore Hall
Ilya Gringolts (violin), Ashley Wass (piano) – Wigmore Hall, London, live on BBC Radio 3, 29 June 2015
Listening link (opens in a new window):
on the iPlayer until 28 July
In case you cannot hear the broadcast, here is a Spotify playlist of the music in this concert (which Gringolts and Wass have not yet recorded):
What’s the music?
Debussy: Violin Sonata (1917) (12 minutes)
Korngold: Violin Sonata (1912) (42 minutes)
What about the music?
Perhaps surprisingly, the violin sonata was one of the main forms in use for chamber music in the first few decades of the twentieth century. Perhaps aware that composers such as Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms and Schumann had mastered the form impressively, others took up the challenge as the new century began its musical breakaway. Ravel, Vaughan Williams, Fauré and Walton – these and more were authors of one or more sonata for violin and piano. Meanwhile an elderly Debussy and child prodigy Korngold offered their own take on the form within four years of each other.
The composers could not have been more different in their circumstances or approach. Debussy was fading fast due to cancer, and the Violin Sonata – a compact yet concentrated piece – was his final published work, meaning we would not get to see the last three sonatas of his projected six-part series. Those that remained – the Sonata for flute, viola and harp, the Cello Sonata and the Violin Sonata – are rightly held in high regard.
Korngold, meanwhile, was just into his teens, somehow with an orchestral work under his belt at the outrageously young age of twelve. This sonata, only three years later, was written just after he had been learning with Zemlinsky, who taught Berg and Schoenberg. It was completed for no less a pair than violinist Carl Flesch and pianist Artur Schnabel. It is an imposing work, clocking in at over forty minutes, and is full of big, romantic gestures and rich, chromatic harmony. It also contains melodic pointers towards the much shorter Violin Concerto he was to complete in 1945.
A fascinating double act, this – chalk and cheese, but the two works complementing each other perfectly as they represent two centres of musical development in Europe at the start of the century.
Debussy, representing Paris, is by far the more concentrated, and both performers are careful not to be too outrageous with the sudden loud bits, nor too restrained in the quiet moments. Technically very sound, Gringolts has a consistently appealing tone, and the shading from Ashley Wass’s colourful piano part brings out the detail.
The Korngold could not be more different – more than three times the length, and focussing in on Vienna with its rich musical language, its big gestures and its long, florid tunes. With this we hear something of what composers like Zemlinsky (his teacher) and Schoenberg (in his early works) were up to.
Both performers give this their all, and the balance between singing violin and quasi-orchestral piano is impeccably observed, particularly in the heavy set second movement. Gringolts really sings in the more lyrical passages – notably the trio of the second movement – and the whole performance stands as a most impressive achievement, with its most concentrated moment right at the end.
What should I listen out for?
1:42 – the first of three short movements in this sonata, notable for its brief but intense ideas, and a tendency to go from private thoughts to sudden outbursts. The use of chromatic harmony makes the music a bit wary at times, before it signs off quickly and emphatically.
6:01 – Gringolts and Wass waste no time in moving straight into the second movement, which is once again elusive. Several ideas sound instinctive, almost improvised, and perhaps indicate the composer’s restless move. Debussy makes a very distinctive sound when the two instruments play the same tune at 7:56. The performers lead straight into…
10:13 – the final movement, which moves swiftly into a memory of the main tune from the first. Again the violin and piano spar with each other, sometimes playfully, and sometimes with brief aggression that Debussy lets loose. The end, when it comes, is high-spirited.
16:02 – this massive work begins quite innocuously, with a movement marked ‘ben moderato, ma con passione’ (a moderate tempo, with passion). Then it really gets going, as though the young composer is straining at the leash. The piano part is expansive and wide ranging, as though Korngold has an orchestral sound in his head.
All the opening thoughts head for a massive climax point at 21:43, after which point the music subsides a bit, though the rich, lyrical melodies continue to pour from the violin.
26:39 – the second movement, a scherzo, reveals two very different musical strands. The first is jumpy, with an angular line, both players are performing gymnastics as they leap up high and crouch down low. Then at 27:12 there is a sly melody that slips down on the violin, with a languid piano line for company. This is at odds with most of the movement though, as the high voltage musical exchanges continue – with the sly melody now heard at full volume (around 29:10).
Then at 31:12 the contrasting ‘trio’ begins, with a beautiful and graceful melody from the violin and flowing piano. This reverie is broken at 33:56 by the return of the jumpy opening material, and around 35:30 we hear some pretty savage chords from the piano, leading to the end at 37:49
38:14 – the slow movement, and a time for a little respite. Korngold once again writes a tune with some unusual contours to it, but one that suits the singing tone of the violin. From 40:55 the violin uses a mute briefly, the sound constricted and quite ghostly, but by the time we reach 43:00 there are forceful and passionate thoughts once again – leading to the soaring violin of 45:58. After that it effectively collapses in a heap!
46:56 – quite an elusive tune from the violin to begin the finale, wandering amiably. Gradually the music picks up momentum and Korngold introduces more dialogue between the instruments, culminating at 51:09 when a fugue starts in the piano left hand, picked up by the violin at 51:14. Again the lines become more angular – but then at 52:20 calm prevails, and a beautiful coda begins. Both violin and piano are serene, the passion of the preceding forty minutes or so summed up in the soft but heartfelt closing pages, finishing at 55:06.
If you want further music for violin and piano, a nice calling point from the Debussy is the Violin Sonata no.1 by fellow French composer Fauré:
If however it’s more Korngold that you want the album below offers you a way in to The Sea Hawk, one of his finest film scores – while the one below that will introduce you to the substantial Symphony in F sharp, an increasingly popular orchestral work.
For more concerts click here