GRIEG: Violin Sonatas Nos. 1-3 (Helge Kjekshus/ Henning Kraggerud) (Naxos: 8.553904)
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Sonatas for Violin andPiano Nos. 1-3
\Last week I had thepleasure of performing my three violin sonatas with Lady Neruda-Halle before avery discerning Danish audience and receiving a very warm response. I canassure you that we did very well and it had special significance for me,because these three works are among my very best and represent different stagesin my development: the first, na?»ve and rich in ideals; the second,nationalistic; and the third with a wider outlook."
So wrote Grieg in aletter of January 1900 to the Norwegian poet Bj?©rnstjerne Bj?©rnson, showingclearly the importance the three violin sonatas have in his development.
We can see their importance to him from the fact that he tried to have themperformed whenever the opportunity arose, willingly performing the piano parthimself. At the Conservatory in Leipzig, Grieg received a basic and thoroughmusical training. On several occasions when he was older, he had negativecomments to make about his years at the Conservatory, but his note-books andexercises from his time in Leipzig show that he had the freedom to experimentin his lessons with teachers such as Ernst Friedrich Richter, Moritz Hauptmannand Carl Reinecke, and it was recognised that he had great talent. He had noreason to criticize the Conservatory. After leaving the Conservatory inLeipzig, he settled in Copenhagen, where he soon came under the influence ofRichard Nordraak, with his glowing enthusiasm and unfailing belief that the keyto the future of Norwegian music was in the country's indigenous music. Hisbeliefs were of crucial importance in Grieg's development as a composer.
Nordraak's influence is most apparent in Humoresques for Piano, Op. 6.
These piano pieces, composed and published in 1865, mark Grieg's break-throughas a composer. His famous collection, Melodies of the Heart, Op. 5(settings of poems by Hans Christian Andersen), was published in the same year.
The Piano Sonata, Op. 7 is also from the same period. His encounter withNorwegian folk-music and his assimilation of its principal features, developedaspects of his creativity which soon led to many people identifying his musicwith folk-music. Some, indeed saw him simply as an arranger of folk-music,which offended Grieg because he used authentic folk-tunes in only a very smallnumber of his works. Many of his own compositions were later to be labelledfolk-tunes.
Grieg is remembered asa composer of works using smaller forms, songs and short piano pieces. Theundeniable lyricism in his music was never challenged, apart from a few workslike the Piano Concerto in A minor Op. 16 and the String Quartet inG minor Op. 27, the Piano Sonata in E minor Op. 7, the three ViolinSonatas on this recording, and the Cello Sonata in E minor Op. 36,he was never confident with larger scale works. Grieg himself regarded this asa shortcoming, blaming it, without justification, on the education he hadreceived at the Conservatory in Leipzig. Nevertheless, he demonstrated that hehad also mastered these forms on the rare occasions when he foundmaterial which could be prepared, treated and elaborated within the frameworkof traditional patterns.
The Violin Sonata inF major, Op. 8, was composed in the summer of 1865 while Grieg was living inCopenhagen, and at the same time as the Humoresques, Op. 6. In the sameyear, the sonata was published by Peters in Leipzig, and in November it wasperformed for the first time in the Gewandhaus by the Swedish violinist AndersPetterson with Grieg himself at the piano. Grieg described the sonata as"simple" and "rich in ideas", and to a certain extent hewas correct. However, what is striking about this and the two latersonatas, is how thoroughly "Grieg-ish" they all seem, despiteconsiderable differences between them. It is also worth noting that, even inthis first sonata, Grieg adapts well to the features of the violin, even thoughhe had no experience as a string player.
Large parts of thefirst sonata, the first movement in particular, demonstrate a wish for acertain harmonic experimentation including, among other things, chromaticwriting, modality and bitonality. There are rhythmic elements in the lastmovement which attract attention. The trio part of the second movement showsGrieg's knowledge of the Norwegian folk instrument, the hardanger fiddle, aninstrument with which he became familiar the previous year when he visited OleBull in Valestrand. As a whole, this sonata is strongly characterized bysomething fresh and youthful, which makes it easy to disregard the traditionaland somewhat stiff formal construction. The first and third movements are insonata form, while the middle movement is a minuet in ternary form, with thetrio being an indication that Grieg would soon take up and transform principalelements from traditional Norwegian folk-music. The Grieg-motif, a theme builton three notes, was gradually to become a trademark in many of his works, andis prominent in the second movement of the sonata. This theme gradually came tobe regarded as the musical expression for the Norwegian element in Grieg'smusic. The theme has the notes A - G# - E in A minor and, in the major key, thenotes A - G - E. Another distinctive example of the use of this theme is in thebeginning of the first movement of the Piano Concerto, Op. 16.
While the first violinsonata was to a large extent identified by harmonic and rhythmicalexperimentation, it is thematic unity which characterises the Violin Sonata inG major, Op. 13. And it is the Grieg-motif which, in its various forms, is theunifying element between the three movements. Of the three violin sonatas, thisis the one which shows most clearly Grieg's ever-increasing interest in, andidentification with, Norwegian folk-music. Rhythmically, Grieg uses the Norwegianfolk-dance "springdans" as a model in both the first and lastmovements. This is one reason for this work being among the most Norwegian ofhis chamber music works. It was also after hearing this sonata that N.W. Gadetold Grieg not to make the next sonata as Norwegian. "On the contrary,Professor", Grieg answered, "the next one will be even more so."
The sonata wascomposed in Kristiania (Oslo) over the three weeks of his honeymoon in thesummer of 1867. In June that year he had married his cousin Nina Hagerup. Thisis the reason the sonata is so strongly characterized by such a vital optimism- because at the same time he experienced how difficult it was to establish asecure basis for his artistic pursuits. In addition to this, his relationshipwith his parents in Bergen was bringing problems. The first performance tookplace in Kristiania in 1867. Gudbrand B?©hn played the violin part and againGrieg was at the piano. The first printed edition of the sonata came fromBreitkopf and Hartel in Leipzig in March 1869.
The Grieg-motif, inits simple, original form, is not particular to Grieg, as it appears in manyother connections, with other composers and in Norwegian and other folk-music.
Much instrumental Norwegian folk-music is constructed of such small melodicthemes, almost like cells, which are repeated with small variations. Thesections are then connected into larger units. At this time, Grieg was uniquein using folk idioms in the development of classical music. The challenge forhim was to apply these elements in a formal musical structure, in this case amovement in sonata form. The alternative, developing new forms which coulddevelop from this source material, belongs to a later period