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ClassicsOnline Home » RAVEL, M.: Violin Sonata / RESPIGHI, O.: Violin Sonata / GRANADOS, E.: Violin Sonata (Saeijs, Bueren)
This disc draws together some lesser-known works by three of the twentieth century’s greatest composers. Ravel’s Violin Sonata in G major was his final chamber work, combining the influence of blues with an austere beauty. The dramatic Violin Sonata in B minor by Respighi is a greatly underrated contribution to the repertoire, while Granados’s one-movement Violin Sonata perfectly captures the composer’s extraordinary harmonic and melodic gifts in a seamless blend of traditional Romantic language and Spanish inflections.
Maurice Ravel (1875–1937): Violin Sonata in G major
Ottorino Respighi (1879–1936): Violin Sonata in B minor, P. 110
Enrique Granados (1867–1916): Violin Sonata
Born in 1875 in the Basque village of Ciboure but brought up in Paris, Maurice Ravel is renowned today as one of the twentieth century’s greatest composers. He began piano and composition lessons at the age of seven, eventually studying with Fauré between 1897 and 1903. His relationship with the older composer proved fruitful, and his musical gifts began to blossom. Yet despite his obvious talent, Ravel was not readily accepted by the establishment. He was twice dismissed from classes at the Conservatoire and famously failed to win the Prix de Rome, despite entering the competition five times. After this shaky start, however, his star began to rise and by the early 1920s he was hailed as France’s greatest living composer. On his death in 1937 he left behind him a body of work that, though relatively small, is innovative, powerful and beautiful.
Ravel’s compelling, unsettling Violin Sonata in G major was written between 1923 and 1927. It was his second sonata for violin and piano, and his final chamber work. Composed in the aftermath of the First World War, and also of his mother’s death in 1917, it is tempting to link the devastation of these two events with the sonata’s deliberate avoidance of the lush Romanticism that had characterized his earlier chamber works. Despite its apparent austerity, however, the sonata possesses its own particular beauty. The ethereal first movement, with its ceaseless ostinato patterns and airy textures, manages to be both bare and deeply expressive, containing some passages of extraordinary lyricism. Although grounded in G major, the movement flirts with whole tones, bitonalism and modality; new themes flit in and out restlessly, playing fast and loose with conventional sonata form. The second movement, entitled ‘Blues’, is (as one might expect) infused with the rhythms and harmonies of blues. The violin intersperses pizzicato chords with long, sinuous melodies and playful glissandi above dotted rhythms in the piano part. The movement was prescient: a year after the sonata’s completion Ravel embarked upon a hugely successful American tour. The finale, a rapid perpetuum mobile movement, begins with a few halting chords before the violin disappears into a virtuosic whirlwind of semiquavers. The restless interplay between the dizzying violin part and the sharp, staccato accompaniment draws the work to a climatic conclusion.
The Italian composer Ottorino Respighi was born in Bologna in 1879 into a musical family, where his father, a piano teacher, gave him his first lessons. In 1891 he enrolled at the Liceo Musicale in his home town, before travelling to Russia where he studied briefly with Rimsky-Korsakov. He later acknowledged the formative impact that this encounter had had upon his music. Returning to Italy, Respighi carved out an extremely successful career; and in addition to composing he remained active as a performer, teacher and musicologist, holding a post as Professor of Composition (and later Director) at the Conservatorio di Santa Cecilia in Rome for thirteen years. In 1926 he retired in order to devote more time to composition, and his fame continued to grow until his death in 1936.
Respighi’s virtuosic Violin Sonata in B minor, which dates from 1917, was composed shortly after his famous Fontane di Roma. At almost half an hour long, it is a monument to Respighi’s mastery of the traditional tonal idiom. Written mid-way through his tenure at the Conservatorio, the sonata is in many ways atypical of the composer’s mature style, harking back as it does to the language of high Romanticism. The dark, brooding opening of the first movement sets the tone for the whole work, before leading quickly into an intense, soaring violin melody. Throughout the movement, moments of high drama alternate with tender lyricism as the music works up to a fierce, impassioned climax, before dying away into a wistful silence. The bittersweet second movement follows a similar emotional pattern: beginning with a beautiful, dream-like piano introduction, the movement gradually builds in intensity, then unwinds again to a contemplative close. Finally the third movement, a thundering passacaglia, provides a thrilling conclusion to the sonata. It begins in grand style, allowing Respighi to demonstrate his contrapuntal skill, but the imposing first section soon gives way to a gentler, more lyrical central interlude. When the mood of the opening returns, it is in a breathtaking explosion of pianistic virtuosity, which hurtles the movement to an authoritative close.
Born in Lérida in 1867, the Catalan composer Enrique Granados is perhaps best-known today for his piano music, and indeed it was as a performer that he first made his name. Although he studied the piano in Barcelona and at the Paris Conservatoire, he was largely self-taught as a composer, and much of his music remained unpublished until after his death. Nevertheless his reputation as a composer grew steadily throughout his lifetime, with the hugely successful 1911 première of Goyescas, his most famous work, marking a turning-point in his career. Goyescas made such an impression that he soon expanded it into an opera, and it was on his return from the first performance of this work in New York, in 1916, that he drowned when his ship was torpedoed by a German submarine.
Granados’s one-movement Violin Sonata was written for his friend and colleague, the French violinist Jacques Thibaud, with whom he frequently performed. It is difficult to determine exactly when it was composed, as Granados frequently left his manuscripts undated, and it was not published until 1971. As with so much of his chamber music, this neglect is sadly indicative of the sonata’s relative obscurity, although it is entirely unjustified. It opens extremely softly, with a few gentle piano chords. A graceful, sensuous violin melody enters, with just a hint of Spanish inflection, as if plucked from the air in one long, continuous utterance. Indeed this may be close to the truth, as Granados generally composed extremely rapidly and made few revisions, frequently writing entire works in a single sustained burst of inspiration. Structurally the work revolves around the violin’s refrain, which returns again and again in ever more impassioned variations, giving the piece the air of an improvisation. The soft, rich chromatic harmonies and delicate, gossamer-fine textures of the sonata are fine illustrations of Granados’s style; so too is the seamless blend of traditional Romantic language and Spanish exoticisms. The expressive piano accompaniment, which ranges from graceful, intricate fingerwork to dramatic impetuosity, eventually brings the work to a close, and it ends as it began, on a whisper.
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