Let us give new names
To the stars.
What does Venus mean
This is the beginning of “New Names” by the Canadian poet F.R. Scott. We name things to make sense of them and then names take on a life of their own. This is the same phenomenon another Canadian, Marshall McLuhan, interrogates with his theory of medium as message. We attach names to aural phenomena and then those names come to define the phenomenon. We then start adding qualifiers to soften the blow – to equivocate.
That is precisely the phenomenon represented on this album – three works, one a Sonata, one a Fantasy, and one a Sonata Fantasia. Hybridity has been around for a long time. The most famous example is Beethoven’s “Moonlight” Sonata, op. 27, no. 2 which, like op. 27, no. 1, is labelled “Quasi una fantasia.” Schumann, 35 years later, writes a sonata-like three-movement work for piano but calls it Fantasie, op. 17. One of its distinguishing features is the placement of the slow movement at the end. Tchaikovsky uses the term Fantasy-Overture to describe his Romeo and Juliet, which is, in fact, in conventional sonata form. Schubert is the most conflicted of all the great composers, particularly when it comes to works for violin and piano – his Sonata in A major, D. 754 is also known, in French, by the title Duo, and his great Fantasie in C major, D. 934, is a sonata with a magnificent theme and variation movement. In other words, the three words sonata, fantasie, and duo get conflated, twisted, combined, and interwoven throughout the course of music history.
The Sonata Fantasia No. 2 by Heitor Villa-Lobos (Brazilian, 1887-1959) was completed in 1914. It was premiered the following year in Rio de Janeiro but not published until almost 40 years later. It is the middle of three sonatas, the first called Sonata Fantasia and the third called simply Sonata. The present work is in three movements. The piano initiates a moto perpetuo which is, in a sense, emblematic of the work as a whole. Throughout this movement, and in the other movements as well, the violin has much pure and wonderful lyricism while the piano part rarely calms down. Even when the right hand is delineating a melody or doubling the violin, the left hand remains frenetically engaged. The second movement, far from evincing Bach or Brazil, bears influence of French composers of the period. The piano shimmers beneath the violin and the overall effect is rhapsodic. Some well-known voices are heard here. There is the intensity of Rachmaninoff, especially and not surprisingly in the piano part, and although the movement is largely impressionistic, it is also unabashedly romantic. This movement, which contains much of the weight of the work, encapsulates the myriad musical influences at play in Europe in the 1910s and 20s. Even what starts as a typically playful finale quickly becomes lyrically and rhythmically charged.
The Violin Sonata No. 2 by Arnold Bax (British, 1883-1953) was completed in 1915 and revised in 1920. From the outset, this is a more declamatory work than the Villa-Lobos and is in many ways weightier. The imposing opening gives way to a long movement of great beauty, in which the violin soars and piano ruminates with equal parts conviction and abandon. As in the Villa-Lobos, the writing is so idiomatic as to be an object lesson in how to write for strings and keyboard. This is also a work whose content is so distinctive that the form is evident on first hearing. Although the second movement begins as a gentle dance, there is nothing light about it emotionally, unless a certain teasing capriciousness is mistaken for insouciance. That would be a significant misreading since death is the dancer here. The rhythms, accents, and modal inflections are sharply pointed and contrast with the stunning nostalgia of the movement’s closing pages. The somber lyricism of the third movement is an effective foil to the emotive first movement and sublime second movement. It has a rich character and atmosphere, which Bax was adept at creating. Some of the declamatory nature of the opening returns in the finale, which has elements of exoticism in its pseudo-Spanish flair. Material from the opening movement (taken from the symphonic poem November Woods) returns to bind together this long and complex sonata. The theme’s transformation is one of the wonders of this work and if one is reminded of Liszt’s fascinating reinterpretations of his fertile themes, this is high praise indeed. Transcendence attaches to the closing pages like a benediction. Could anything possibly be more beautiful?
The Duo Fantasy by William Bolcom (American, b. 1938) dates from 1973 and is roughly contemporaneous with his Piano Concerto (1976). In writing about the latter work, Bolcom wondered what about the United States bicentennial could be celebrated with a straight face. That sentiment also pervades the Duo Fantasy. It is on one level pure fun, but on another, ironic. The stark episodic opening, with sparse interpolations from the piano, suggests something serious is afoot, but we are soon plunged into a mélange of Tin Pan Alley, ersatz hymnody, rhumba perhaps, ragtime certainly, pointillism, and sentimentality. Ives is never far from the fore, but as an inspiration and not as a model. Precipitous twists of a stylistic kaleidoscope make one wonder eagerly what lies around the next corner. Near the end, something resembling a siren in the violin, perhaps signalling an impending air raid, and the sudden quiet ending suggest a darker purpose reminiscent of La Valse. This brilliant work, like the others on this album, leaves one pondering many things, from what makes a sonata tick, to what makes peace in our time so tenuous.
— Notes by Glen Carruthers
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