Glass Sonata for Violin and Piano

performed (and premiered) by Maria Bachmann and Jon Klibonoff, second movement below

The last work in our little series of pieces for the violin is a very recent work, having only been premiered in 2009. The piece was written specifically for Bachmann, and as Glass’s website says, was “commissioned by retired architect Martin Murray to commemorate the 70th birthday of his wife, Lucy Miller Murray.” Bachmann not only premiered the work, in February 2009 in Harrisburg, PA, but also gave us (here) the world-premiere recording of the piece, with Jon Klibonoff on piano.

The piece is in three movements, a total of about 23 minutes. I found the very informative and helpful article here, which appears to be program or liner notes for the album, from where most of my information about this piece comes.

Remember that Glass’s father owned a record store, and that some of that exposure to music as a result was quite influential in the young composer’s life. He mentions of his father’s taste, “Among his favorites were the violin/piano sonatas of Brahms, Faure and the great masterpiece of Franck. I spent many, many hours with my father listening to these works.”

In the document, Glass speaks of how that influence came to mind when Bachmann approached him about the work, and that they consulted and discussed various aspects of the work, rehearsing revisions and adjustments until the piece was completed, a very traditional form, the piano sonata, with very classical influences from ‘the great masters,’ and yet with Glass’s unmistakable approach and sound.

It’s significant that the other pieces on Bachmann’s album, a recital program, are from Bach/Gounod, Schubert, and Ravel, putting the contemporary work alongside some  classical icons. So in this context, what’s the similarity? Well, we’ve talked about this ‘minimalist’ label, and how it might be itself (interestingly) an oversimplification. Plain, uncalculated repetition, with no goal in mind, doesn’t accomplish much, stagnates development, and gets old. None of them do that. The program notes say:

That stark definition of Minimalism fails in its application to Glass’s music because it omits the emotional charge infused into the works by way of subtle harmonic changes and shifts in tempo and mood.

We’ve seen some of these subtle concepts in play in pieces like the second string quartet and very straightforwardly in the violin concerto. But as for the piece’s companions on this album:

The Sonata No. 1 for Violin and Piano bears Glass’s familiar imprint of repetitive, motor-like rhythms but applied in his ever unique way. One is reminded of the skill and art of repetition as employed by no less composers than Bach, Schubert, and Ravel, all of whom are represented on this recording because of their influence on the music of Philip Glass.

The article describes the “skillful and artful repetition that… gives the sonata its great emotional intensity.” And yes, we could sit and talk about technical details of the work, which would be so much easier if I had a score, or we could just listen.

The piece begins with some simple but rich figures from the violin, arpeggiated figures from piano in the background, a more static, mellow opening, but it doesn’t last. We move quickly from sustained notes in the violin to rhythmic alternating notes, a sort of pulsing that doesn’t overshadow the harmonic interest between violin and piano.

I almost feel inclined to listen to the work and drop pins at significant points of change in the music, to think less of a typical sonata form and a modulation to the dominant key, and more of pivotal changes in the texture or harmony. The repeated alternating notes disappear and we get back to something more like the beginning at around the three minute mark. There’s a subtlety to these moments, no bang, no crash, but there is also stunning, undeniable crystalline beauty to it, as a few quiet, more intimate moments of the first movement can relate.

Again with contrast, we have the second movement. The piano takes a more foreground role, and the two interact beautifully. It’s actually a little difficult to find words to describe this movement, in the way that trying to say something to your companion in an art museum about the piece, in a quiet room, would shatter the atmosphere, and that whatever you had planned on saying was unnecessary, implicitly understood, inherent, and would only detract from the moment. The second movement is beautiful.

The third movement is the most outwardly virtuosic or lively. Each instrument gets moments of exposure and the soloist/accompanist roles are blurred even more here, so the interaction is wonderful. It feels as if we’re looking at the first movement from a different angle, like taking Bachmann’s ‘Glass Heart’ from the cover of the album and looking at it with different lighting, from a different angle. It’s suddenly full of a fire and color quite different from the way we saw it before. Some of the similar repeated figures are similar, but its as if the music has finally blossomed, experienced growth and rain and sunshine and has now opened up to its fully-formed self. It’s still very much in keeping with the rest of the piece, but the virtuosity and some of the harmonies and textures are a wonderfully welcome interest to the piece, a fiery, engaging way to round out a tender, flowing, expressive study in traditional ideas in a modern idiom. There’s a very satisfying crunch to the final movement, and it ends breathtakingly in a dizzying flood of figures and notes from both performers… almost…

Well, that’s about all I have of any insight to share about this work, and I borrowed most of it. A 2008-09 composition date makes Glass’s work here by far the youngest piece on the blog. If anyone wants to cover the world premiere of Glass’s eleventh in January, that would be about as hot-off-the-press as we could get, but for now… we’re done with violin stuff, at least as a solo instrument, and with Glass’s works, although there’s plenty more to discuss on both counts.

I am extremely excited about a few things coming up next week. There will be a series review (of stuff this month), as well as the introduction to September’s Series, which I’m very looking forward to. Perhaps most excitingly, though, is an open letter I decided to write to a few people (who remain nameless, so maybe not that open) about something that got me a little irritated recently, which, granted, isn’t that hard to do. I’m really proud of that article, and it’ll be out next week, along with another revisit from a piece I tried to write about ages ago (in light of a recent passing), so stay tuned for all of that and thanks for hanging around.

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