Grieg’s Violin Sonatas are notoriously neglected. The Third is supposedly the only one in the “mainstream” repertoire but I can honestly say I’ve never encountered it at a concert or heard it performed live on air. Debussy once bitched about Grieg’s music as “bonbons filled with snow”, Grieg escaped lightly: he also once quipped there were three types of music “Good, bad and that of Amboise Thomas” (the composer of the opera Mignon).
The Sonatas were composed over a long period between 1865 and 1886-7, but their overall effect in the hands of Tom Poster and Elena Urioste is of a massive and life-enhancing dose of musical Vitamin D. Grieg characterised the three as “naïve, reflecting many antecedents” (No 1), “national” (No 2), and having “wider horizons” (No 3). It’s noteworthy that he was right on the mark.
Sonata No 1 is highly influenced by the German school – particularly Schumann, whose own violin sonatas are brought to mind in Grieg’s impetuous first movement and finale (with its decidedly German main theme). It was wittily described as in the “Mendelssohnacidic” and “Schumannoxide” mode which pervaded so much of other people’s music in those days. These artists despatch it with panache and bravura, especially in the fugato passage (harking backing back to the Leipzig days?). However, it’s in the second movement that Grieg’s Norwegian instincts come to the fore in the rhythmically complex springar dance which, despite being syncopated in three-four (waltz) time the dancers perform in two-four, four-four and three-four – with syncopated pauses in between! Here, Poster and Urioste are superb in playing off each other. The final movement is a succession festivity and jubilation.
The Second sonata, composed just two years after the First is even more terpsichorial. It shifts its geographical focus further north: After its Lento doloroso introduction, (presumably depicting the more soulful side of the Norwegian psyche) Urioste and Poster gallop off with a dancing theme that is positively rhapsodic. The succeeding Allegro tranquillo is based around an exquisite cantabile melody which could almost pass for one of Mendelssohn’s Songs without Words and here they caress it with just the right amount of rubato. The finale is another lively springer.
The Third Sonata, which was mentioned in Thomas Mann’s novel Dr Faustus, is undoubtedly the main event here although it’s only fractionally longer than the other two. It was the last extended composition Grieg wrote. The opening is fast, furious and dramatic. The violin descends to its deepest register and Poster responds in kind with a series of thunderous Brahmsian chords. The second movement, again, is in the form of a noble song of chiselled perfection, In the finale, the radiance of the previous movement is dispelled by an initially hammering Allegro animato which soon sublimates into a a rambunctious triumphant finale. There two artists are totally inside this music . Urioste varies her tone aptly and both artists veers an intricate path between rustic harm and virtuosic sophistication.
Works: Complete Violin Sonatas
Performers: Elena Urioste v, Tom Poster p
Label: Orchid Classics 100126