Ravel: Violin Sonata No. 2 in G major

performed by Viktoria Mullova and Bruno Canino (more about Mullova below), or below by Renaud Capuçon and (the outstandingly lovely) Hélène Grimaud

Who would have thought the first violin sonata we’d tackle on this blog (after almost three years of pretty dedicated listening and exploration) would be a work from less than 100 years ago, not by Mozart or Beethoven, not a Bach partita or sonata, but Ravel? It is exciting to see we’ve still got plenty of firsts in the works.

Chamber music is a personal, intimate affair, with lots of exposure for both the composer and the performer(s). You can’t hide bad voice leading or wonky chords or textures in an amalgam of instruments; you have limited resources and lots of exposure. The writing for your instrument(s) should be characteristic of that instrument. While Mahler or Bruckner had an understanding of the instruments for which they were writing, they were writing for instruments that were (usually) part of a larger whole, as opposed to exhibiting the characteristic qualities of that instrument, which is what one expects from a sonata or concerto where a soloist is featured. We start our little focus on the violin with Ravel’s  second violin sonata, after having discussed his sole string quartet. For this little series, there are a number of works that take a later ‘no. ‘” label as posthumous works, and I have decided, for now, that we will not address those. This sonata is labeled no. 2 because there was a much earlier single-movement sonata (in A minor?) that was only published in like 1975, which I guess mean this work’s ‘no. 2’ label is relatively young, and possibly even misleading. In any case, it was written decades after the youthful unpublished effort, so we’ll be addressing it today. Let’s go.

Actually wait. Another exciting detail is the premiere of the work, which, after an apparent five-year gestation period, took place on May 30, 1927, with the composer at the piano and George Enescu as soloist! How cool. More on the dedicatee of the work below.

The Ravel ‘sonata for violin and piano’ is often called that and not a ‘violin sonata’, perhaps for a reason. From the word go, the piano takes the lead to introduce the content of the first movement, which is a kind of neoclassical fairytale thing, I’d say clearly of Ravel’s hand by sole virtue of the piano writing, which has echoes and shades of the kind of writing from his solo piano music, something that’s more than welcome in the slightly playful, slightly ethereal, but catchy, engaging first movement. It’s quirky in places, mostly triple meter, but with clicks here and there (here from piano or here from violin) of a more fiery spirit, like sparks that might set the whole thing aflame, but they don’t. At least not yet.

The second movement, if it were to follow the general idea of second movements, would be a slow, lyrical, contrasting thing, but instead, its title tells us what it is: blues.

Apart from the composer’s deeply fascinating, poetic, pianistic, ethereal solo piano music, like the shimmery dark blues and rich colors and depths of something like Gaspard, or the compact, shining, rippling beauty of the Sonatine, there is another special characteristic of Ravel’s music that showed up later, and it’s what pervades a work like his first piano concerto: it’s jazz.

Ravel was able to hear jazz and blues rhythms and harmonies from Parisian cafes, and became quite enamored, viewing them perhaps and uniquely American and fascinating, the early 20th century response to Dvorak’s use of pentatonic “American” themes in the late 19th century perhaps, but this is Ravel’s American music, something he latched hold of, and listening to the second movement, one sees he did it successfully. (Also, he accompanied a French violinist for a time who also loved jazz, and the work is actually dedicated to her, one Hélène Jourdan-Morhange, who was unable to play the work due to arthritis.

It would be easy to think that a Basque Frenchman who made a quick visit to America and grafted such an idiom into his music would produce something… Trite, like cultural appropriation of early 20th-century America, but you’d be wrong. Ravel’s blues movement is seductive, gnarly, jazzy, and sexy. Suddenly the colors and textures created by a piano and violin seem less than a swingy little duet, and more like a full-on ensemble, something from a dimly lit stage in an underground little smoke-filled room. Between glissandos and pizzicatos (violin likely played on the lap, like a guitar, with such long pizz. passages), the colors and syncopation, grace notes and all the rest, it’s an outstandingly compelling movement, and I particularly do NOT like jazz. The performers’ interpretations hit the idiom right on the head, a spirited, engaging, even gripping performance, one that can even convince me of its outstanding qualities.

The sonata is clearly in a three-movement form, but what comes next is very interesting. By far the shortest movement of the work, the perpetuum mobile seems to go back to neoclassical (even baroque?!) style expression. You might not think that of the beginning, with an almost cartoonish beginning, again from the piano, but once things liven up, it’s a nonstop, relentless flood of notes like you might find from something that Bach would have written if he’d just finished racing horses in early 20th century France. The piano makes it very clear that the movement is not neoclassical or plain old counterpoint stuff, because it’s clinky and quirky, like it is trying to keep on with the blues thing and keep up with the violinist, who’s decided to run full speed ahead. Remember that little ‘spark‘ of a moment in the first movement, the one that seemed like it would set the whole thing ablaze? Well, here, I feel like it has. I know it isn’t what I’m about to say it’s like, I know. But… it’s almost as if the first two movements are their own contrasting ideas, and the third movement is where they kind of clash to bring this little eighteen-minute work to a satisfying and exciting close.

As for Ms. Viktoria Mullova, she has a phenomenal story, the basics of which are shared on Wikipedia, but in short, she and her lover at the time, posing as her accompanist, snuck out of their hotel in Finland in the 1980s and defected to Sweden where they still had to hide for a number of days holed up in a safehouse before they could get to the American Embassy, eventually flying to Washington, D.C, visas in hand. She left a Soviet-owned Stradivari violin on the bed of the hotel when she defected.

Ms. Mullova is apparently “best known for her performances and recordings of … her innovative interpretations of popular and jazz compositions by Miles Davis, Duke Ellington,the Beatles, and others.[1]” It’s no surprise, then, that this recording, the first and only one I’d listened to in preparation for this article, was more than captivating and true to the specific idiom(s) the composer conjured up. One always has a bit of curiosity how a new name (I’d never heard of Mullova) compares to the household names that everyone knows, but it was the one I picked up, and it is outstanding. You’ll be pleased to know she currently “plays the Jules Falk Stradivarius from 1723 and a violin made in 1750 by Giovanni Battista Guadagnini,” so leaving that other fiddle behind in Finland didn’t seem to hold her back too much.

All in all, an interesting and idiomatic start to our little violin series. We have another violin work from Ravel awaiting us on Thursday (most of you can probably guess…, and it actually predates this one for reasons I’ll discuss), but next week’s installments occur almost concurrently with this week, so the timeline of the series was difficult to decide, but since Ravel’s string quartet is the earliest, he gets to go first. Stay tuned for all of that and more.

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