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Sonata No. 10 in G, Op. 96 for violin and piano

April 19, 2009 – Elmar Oliveira, violin; John Novacek, piano

In 1812, the year Beethoven composed his tenth and final violin sonata, he wrote in his diary, “Everything that is called life should be sacrificed to the sublime and be a sanctuary of art.” The sublime tenderness of the G Major Sonata may surprise those expecting the fist-shaking defiance of his Fifth Symphony or the turbulence of the Appassionata piano sonata. Here we encounter a “kinder, gentler” Beethoven, passing from his heroic middle period into a more ruminative, profound late period. In this piece, pain and struggle recede and are replaced by an intimate, pastoral warmth.

Dedicated to his devoted patron Archduke Rudolf, the piece was premiered in December of that year with the Archduke at the piano. The violinist was the Frenchman Pierre Rode, once considered the finest of his time but, in 1812, somewhat past his prime. Rode’s advancing age may have dictated a less vigorous work than Beethoven’s previous violin sonata, the monumental “Kreutzer” of 1803. But the gentle, musing atmosphere of Op. 96 is more probably an outgrowth of Beethoven’s evolving inner life.

The first movement begins with a rustling, feathery trill, establishing the pastoral tone of the sonata. A jauntier second theme does little to disturb the overall serenity of the exposition. Themes unfold in an instinctive, stream-of-consciousness manner. At times the music seems to hover, circle around, and wander down unexpected paths, which become, in turn, the bases for further explorations.

The warm, hymn-like second movement, marked “slow and expressive,” is one of Beethoven’s most beautiful Adagios. A flowing, tranquil stream of melody is couched in rich, chorale-like harmonies. The peaceful movement concludes with a moment of suspended animation before diving into the more agitated third movement, a minor key Scherzo. Though distinguished by syncopated, end-of-the-bar accents, the music never becomes brusque. The Scherzo alternates with a graceful, waltzing Trio set over a bagpipe drone, again reinforcing the work’s pastoral character.

Beethoven wrote to the Archduke, “I have not hurried unduly to compose the last movement, as in view of Rode’s playing I have had to give thought to the composition of this movement. In our finales we like to have fairly noisy passages, but R does not care for them – and so I have been rather hampered.” Beethoven finally settled on a genial, folk-like melody as the basis for an unconventional set of variations. Four increasingly active variations lead to a prolonged, expressive Adagio, somewhat reminiscent of the atmosphere of the second movement. Eloquent instrumental exchanges are interrupted by dreamy, chromatic piano cadenzas. The initial theme eventually returns, leading to a boisterous section that is interrupted by a quiet, mysterious canon before returning to the original theme. The listener is surprised by a short, final Adagio, after which the violin and piano regain their resolve and sprint to an unbridled, joyous conclusion.

By Michael Parloff

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