Friday, January 21, 2011

Seven Sonatas for Two Violins (this post is a bit longer!)

I first became familiar with these works relatively recently when I found them in the Helsinki Public Library about two years ago. Unfortunately, at the time of this writing the library copy seems to be lost, so whatever meaningful background I can give about these works will have to come from memory or whatever I can find on the internet.

This work dates from 1951 while Pettersson was studying with Honegger and Leibowitz in Paris. As a string player, I can confidently say that these sonatas are absolutely insane from a technical point of view. The virtuosic demands on the performers are as unrelenting and uncompromising as the music, and these works would also be of interest to anyone who loves some good violin pyrotechnics.

These sonatas occupy an expressive world quite far removed from the Barefoot Songs. Regardless of what is happening musically in the Sonatas, I get a constant sense of conflict; even the lyrical moments seem to be infused with fragility. These works are overflowing with ideas and nervous, jittery energy.

If my memory serves me correctly, the liner notes to the BIS recording talk about how Pettersson develops the “grammar” for his subsequent works in the Sonatas. While I certainly agree, I was surprised at how much the Barefoot Songs informs the Sonatas.

Each individual sonata has a performance time ranging from about 3 to 13 minutes. Most consist of a single movement while the 2nd and 6th are multi-movement affairs. I personally do not hear any melodic or motivic material which ties the individual sonatas together, but I could be wrong.

Some sonatas come across as more successful than others, and I certainly would not recommend listening to the whole cycle in one sitting. But anyway, this post is long enough, so let’s get started…

Sonata No. 1

The 1st sonata is written in one movement and has a performance time of about 13 minutes. This piece begins with a slow, quiet introduction, perhaps a compact version of the slow introductions which begin several of the symphonies. The introduction is based upon a song, played in G minor at the most fragile pianissimo in the violin’s upper register.

The next section begins with a declamatory oration around the notes G, Ab, A, and Bb. Pettersson oscillates obsessively between these notes for a while. This, along with the introductory song, form the core material of the rest of the sonata.

The song makes several reappearances throughout the work. The next appearance, in Bb minor, is played with rich nobility on the G string. The other violin assaults the song with slashing multiple stops. The song holds its ground and continues unfazed. This kind of gesture reappears again throughout the symphonies, where a long melodic line is heard amid the whirling storm of the orchestra.

The song becomes more frantic—embellished with rapid ornamentations and strained glissandi. The other violinist continues its assault of the song. The music continues its conflict-laden pace, but eventually settles down again, where the song makes another appearance, this time in Eb minor. Now the other violin provides an “out-of-tune” accompaniment, droning on an A-D fourth on the lower two strings.

A long upward glissando brings the sonata to a close on G minor.

Sonata No. 2

The compact 2nd sonata consists of three movements and has a performance time of about 7 minutes. The first movement, Allegro con allegrezza, begins with rapid, nervous scurrying building up to a small climax of sorts. The scurrying continues, but starts to stutter. The movement ends abruptly, perhaps even with a bit of dry humor, on a D-G cadence. The second movement, Moderato, picks up where the last one left off, with a repeated Eb-Ab gesture. The nasal open E string begins to assert itself, with increasing insistence. Despite everything that transpires, the open E has the last word. The third movement, Allegro veloce – Ostinato, starts out with rapid-fire passagework, reminiscent of the first movement. The ostinato comes in, a rising figure with fourths followed by a triad (G-C-F-Gb-Bb-Db, I think). I particularly like how the other violin sometimes weaves queasily around the ostinato figure. (Not having the score I don’t know if one violinist constantly has the ostinato figure or if it is traded).

Sonata No. 3

The one-movement 3rd sonata is a bit shorter than the previous, clocking in at about 5 minutes on this recording. If you don’t have perfect pitch and want to train your ear on F#, this sonata is a good place to start. The opening F# is repeated or held in different registers for the first minute and a half. The other violin sneaks in, playing around with the pitches F, F# and D, but also making sure we remember the F#. Next follows a passage which kinda reminds me of Shostakovich. Fragments of songs are heard, but the lyricism is not really sustained. Take notice of the passage beginning at 4’21, especially the ridiculous pyrotechics at 4’29. Unsurprisingly, Pettersson gives the F# the final word.

Sonata No. 4

Similar to the previous sonata, the 4th is in a single movement and has a performance time of about 5 minutes. The piece begins with an ostinato figure around the notes F#, C#, F, G and C. Nervous trills mark the other violinist’s entrance. The ostinato figure continues to anchor the proceedings, even though it stutters and is interrupted. A brief repose is heard in the central section, but soon becomes increasingly agitated and impassioned, leading back to a variation of the opening ostinato. Quiet pizzacati bring the piece to a close.

Sonata No. 5

With the 10 minute, single movement 5th sonata Pettersson presents a more convincing argument compared to the previous two sonatas, which sometimes seem like a lot of noodling around a single pitch or ostinato figure. Here, Pettersson works with a lot of material but ties it all seamlessly together into a cogent argument, where each idea seems to flow inevitably to the next. Particularly interesting is the faux-Viennese/Mahlerian episode in the last quarter of this piece.

Sonata No. 6

The five-movement 6th sonata is perhaps my favorite of the lot. The first movement, Andante, consists of a folk-like tune of almost eastern character with pizzicato accompaniment (anyone know how just two violinists can pull off this passage?). Things get considerably spikier in the 2nd movement, Walzer, with prickly, rapid-fire pizzicati. The third movement, Mesto, is a brief Eb-minor lament where Pettersson plays around with major-minor relationships and perhaps some shades of Mahler. In the 4th movement, Tempo di Waltzer, Pettersson builds this movement around a single pitch played insistently (A) similar to the previous two sonatas, but here much more effectively in my opinion. The final movement, Andante, begins with dark groveling leading to an impassioned folk-like lament, again with major-minor oscillations. The final A which ends the work comes as a bit of a surprise to me (it acts as a V for the next sonata?).

Sonata No. 7

Harmonically speaking, the brief final sonata (one movement, about 3 minutes) picks up where the last one left off with a mournful song played in a pure A minor tonality (I heard D minor initially, but then B naturals come in. Dorian mode?). The opening to me sounds like it could come from a Shostakovich quartet. A flash of Mahler is heard. Before long, we are taken back to more familiar, conflict-laden territory. This sonata pales somewhat in comparison to the others, and the final notes seem like a rather unfulfilling end to the journey.

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