Hold on Loosely

By Reel, James | Strings, May 2006 | Go to article overview

Hold on Loosely


Reel, James, Strings


Franck's Violin Sonata in A major is a sensuous Romantic-era showpiece well worth the challenge

ON SEPTEMBER 26, 1886, violinist Eugène Ysaye had two reasons to celebrate, first, this was his wedding day; second, a messenger delivered a most renfiarkable wedding gift from Belgian composer César Franck: an innovative new sonata for violin and piano. This was exactly the sort of music Ysaye loved, harmonically advanced and full of Romantic ardor. It was also a turbulent and often melancholy score, perhaps not the most optimistic of wedding presents, but at least it ended in an affirmative A major.

Ysaye premiered the work in Brussels, his and Franck's native land, not quite 12 weeks later, and introduced it to Paris audiences at the end of the following year.

Despite its difficulties, not least of which is balancing the constant interplay between the two instruments, the Franck Violin Sonata has long fascinated musicians and audiences alike, to the point that some people might call for a moratorium on its performance, so inescapable has it become. From the beginning, Franck authorized its performance on the cello; violists and flutists have transcriptions of their own.

The sonata even penetrated one of the most famous works of French literature; Marcel Proust used it as the model for the sonata by the fictitious composer Vinteuil in his novel In Search of Lost Time.

Franck was 65 when he wrote the sonata. Like most of Franck's sensual, mature works, it is haunted by Wagner's Tristan und Isolde; the Wagnerian-turned-Franckian chromaticism brings a disturbing, restless yearning to the work's passions. Along with the opulent harmonies comes a loose, rhapsodic structure, unified by a small number of themes cycling through the work again and again. Indeed, the third movement, Recitativo fantasia, sweeps and sighs through fragments of themes from the previous two movements and offers a preview of what will happen to them in the canonic final movement.

AHEAD OF ITS TIME

By the standards of 1886, this was avant-garde music. It begins with an audacious ninth chord-rare for the time-and despite its frequent changes of mood, most of the thematic ideas are based on the interval of the major third with a falling semitone. This, rather than adherence to sonata-allegro form, is what binds the sonata's structure.

The work's difficulties are not only technical, but musical. How to maintain the right tension in both the harmony and the melodic line? How to phrase in a way that feels free but not disjointed? How to wring every drop of passion from the piece without overheating it into syrup?

Every musician must find a meaningful, individual approach to the Franck sonata. Cellist Ofra Harnoy, at one extreme, once told an interviewer that for her, "the piece becomes a story about an old woman who is at her husband's grave going through the emotions of remembering the past with him, screaming out in anger at his death. There have been a few times when I've had tears running down my face, because I was so involved in the music and became part of it."

In contrast, violinist Vincent Skowronski has little interest in storylines. His first piece of advice is to "leave the Franck sonata alone." Convey its passionate style, but don't exaggerate the Romanticism that's already there aplenty.

"It's truly heart-on-your-sleeve Romanticism at its best, with great writing for both violin and piano," he says. "In all the years I've played it, and heard it played by other violinists and by students of mine, even if it's not done as perfectly or as wondrously as one would like it to be, you can't ruin the piece."

Skowronski is an independent violinist based in Evanston, Illinois. A laureate of the 1970 International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow, he operates a rare-instrument brokerage firm, runs his own CD label, and maintains a private teaching studio. On his label, Skowronski: Classical Recordings (www. …

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