Grieg was working on a major new work for piano and violin in the summer and autumn of 1886, at his house in Bergen, Norway. Unlike his two earlier sonatas, which were written in a matter of weeks (some 20 years earlier), the C minor Sonata required several months of effort to complete, and it would take a further year of revisions before Grieg was happy to present it in public. Grieg wrote to his publisher on 25 July, “I’m writing a piece of chamber music. Only the gods know when it will be nished”. It is thought that the inspiration for the piece came from several encounters with the playing of a young violinist, Teresina Tua: “If ever I again compose anything for the violin, she will be to blame,” he wrote in November 1886. Much like Franck, this was a composer turning his attention to the piano and violin combination at the height of his powers, and the resultant work has been recognised as one of the great works for these forces. It was also to be the last chamber work, and indeed the last large-scale piece, that Grieg completed.
It is often observed that Grieg’s instinctive lyricism and the brevity of his thematic ideas do not lend themselves well to large-scale works. He was fascinated by the folk tunes of his native Norway, and this influence led many contemporaries to assume that much of his output was simply arrangements of folk material. Grieg himself acknowledged that large-scale structures were not his strongest compositional trait. Nevertheless, this piece was championed by the composer during the remaining 20 years of his life. He offered to perform it himself from the piano whenever the occasion arose, starting with the rst performance, with Adolf Brodsky, in Leipzig on 10 December 1887. In his own mind, it represented one of the works he was most proud of, perhaps in part because it successfully disproved the notion that he was a composer of only small-scale forms.
Opening with a dramatic statement in the key most associated with heroic struggle, C minor, the Allegro molto ed appassionato is characterised by long sweeping sections which build in intensity. Oscillating, fast semiquavers in the piano part create a shimmering impression of the harmonies and add to the drama under the soaring violin melodies. Despite brighter moments, including the folk-inspired second subject (presented rst in the relative major key of E- at), Grieg maintains a sense of unease with syncopated rhythms, and the mood never stays settled for long. Huge extremes of dynamic are used as a device to justify extended sequential waves of increasing sound. Ultimately, the movement reaches its climax just before a nal Presto reworks some of the opening material to bring the movement to a bravura close.
A huge shift in tonality and mood ushers in the opening of the Allegretto espressivo alla Romanza. Following in the tradition of Beethoven (Piano Concerto No.3) and Brahms (Symphony No.1 & Piano Quintet No.3), the tonality moves up a major 3rd to the contemplative key of E major. Presented rst in the piano, then the violin, a melody, beautiful in its simplicity, is stunningly harmonised with skillful use of expressive suspensions. A central Allegro molto turns to the key of E minor and more agitated syncopated rhythms, to offer contrast, this time more by way of witty exuberance than serious drama. After progressively breaking down the rhythms, a rising violin scale takes us brie y through the key of E- at major before settling the opening melody back into its home key. This time, the music is allowed to ourish in dynamic, supported by deep bass notes and repeated chords in the piano. After climactic falling octaves in the violin part, the music winds down to an almost ethereal close, with the violin ascending up to a high, harmonic E, using just a simple arpeggio of the tonic chord.
Grieg’s folk-music leanings are best displayed in the themes of the nale, Allegro animato. Fast, pianissimo, rippling 5ths in the piano underpin the folk-inspired theme which converses between the violin and piano left-hand, once again employing slow crescendi over many bars to fully explore the thematic possibilities. A contrasting cantabile section presents a sustained violin melody over simple chordal accompaniment in the piano. This pair of sections is then repeated with harmonic variation, before a Prestissimo coda mirrors the rst movement by bringing the work to a virtuosic close.
© Nicholas Burns 2014