César Franck’s Violin Sonata forms part of the triad of chamber ensembles produced by the composer in the last decade of his life along with a piano quintet and string quartet. All three works are acclaimed as dazzling examples of French chamber music.
Franck dedicated the score as a wedding present to its first performer Eugène Ysaÿe, a famous Belgian violinist. Franck’s sonata was not just one of Ysaÿe’s favourite works, performed until the end of his career, but also entered the repertoires of numerous celebrated violinists.
The four-part form of the cycle, which begins with a measured slow movement, brings to mind the structure of Bach’s sonatas. Turning to recitative (in the third movement) and polyphonic forms (the main theme of the finale is a canon) also makes us think of the principles of the Baroque era, though – of course – this sonata belongs to the late-Romantic style, by no means least because of the rich chromatic harmonies. The first musical idea of the sonata is in the colourful Major-key ninth chord, the sound of which Franck literally is in love with, not hastening to settle it in a steady assonance – he creates a link with Debussy’s yet-to-be-written searches in harmony.
In the sonata we have a vivid example of the principle of “cyclical themes” by which the cycle is linked by one motif that appears in every movement. Franck also made use of this principle in his symphony music. Here this element is provided by the intonation of the rising tercet that appears at the very start of the first part of the piano and then with the violin.
The violin, which stands apart throughout the sonata, was later transposed for various instruments including the flute. The arrangement for cello produced by French cellist Jules Delsart was approved by Franck himself. The natural sound of the sonata when performed on the cello allows us to see it as an equal partner to the original.
Catalonian cellist Gaspar Cassadó, a pupil of the legendary Pablo Casals, developed a vast repertoire for his instrument as well as for guitar, not to mention numerous concerto transcriptions. His interest in early music was not limited to Bach – he had a firm knowledge of Frescobaldi and Couperin as well. In his one and only suite he combined the Baroque with the present, the Catalonian and the pan-European, which is reflected in the titles of the three movements: Preludio-Fantasia (a Zarabanda), Sardana, Intermezzo and Danza finale (a jota). The Suite for Solo Cello is, of course, a tribute Bach, but also to Zoltán Kodály. Cassadó quotes a fragment from his Cello Sonata (1921) in the first movement. There we can also find a quote from Ravel’s ballet Daphnis et Chloé (1912) – Cassadó could not resist the temptation of arranging the magnificent flute solo for his favourite instrument.
Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy’s Second Cello Sonata is dedicated to Count Mateusz Wielhorski, a patron of the arts and one of the most significant figures in music in Russia in the 19th century. A pupil of the acclaimed Bernhard Romberg, Wielhorski was also a good cellist; Robert Schumann, during his time in St Petersburg, heard him perform sonatas by Mendelssohn and noted in his diary that Wielhorski performed like a true artist.
In the sonata there are reflections of the facets of the mature Mendelssohn’s style. The first movement of the sonata brings to mind the “Italian” pages of his music. The mysterious colour of the scherzo, underscored by the use of pizzicato for the cello, is undoubtedly closely related to the music he created at the same time for A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The lofty Adagio, in which the cello has a recitative role, is a kind of tribute to Bach, whose art Mendelssohn greatly admired. The series finishes with a virtuoso and life-affirming finale.
Mstislav Rostropovich inspired many 20th century composers to write works for cello. Benjamin Britten first heard Rostropovich during a tour by the latter to London, as part of which he performed Shostakovich’s First Concerto to great acclaim. Enthralled by the musician’s skill, at his request Britten composed the Cello and Piano Sonata. Rostropovich was the first performer of both this sonata (the piano part being performed by Britten himself) and all subsequent cello music by the composer – one symphony and three suites.
Britten’s five-movement sonata combines features of a classical sonata cycle and a divertissement suite. Using forms that are traditional for the sonata form, the composer gave each movement a genre designation. The cycle is structured concentrically: the character of the first two movements is reflected, as if in a mirror, in the last two, thus framing the slow third movement. The movement that opens the sonata is titled Dialogue. A short, fleeting motif lays the basis for all its themes. The development of this motif leads to the culmination: the inconsistent phrases of the cello receive a response from the sharp and dissonant rejoinders of the piano. The tone of the peaceful “dialogue” returns in the reprise. In the scherzo the timbre of the cello is interpreted unusually – throughout the entire movement it is performed without the use of the bow. The sharp staccato of the piano part underscores the “percussive” colour. The central movement of the piece is an elegy in which the basic mournful theme resounds in a low register with the cello. Its development attains an incredibly high degree of expressiveness by the middle of the movement. The miniature march of the fourth movement is a kind of parody in terms of character – the ensemble instruments each perform in their own tonalities, as if not coinciding with each other. The finale is a “perpetuum mobile” structured on the DSCH monogram motif. This movement is dedicated to Dmitry Shostakovich, with whom Britten shared a longstanding friendship and whose music inspired him to produce this sonata.