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Suite for two violins and piano, Op. 71

February 20, 2022 – Paul Huang, violin; Danbi Um, violin; Juho Pohjonen, piano

For a time Moszkowski led the life of a touring piano virtuoso, until a nervous disorder curtailed his performing. He was fortunate, however, to excel in many pursuits. He had been teaching since he was seventeen at the Neue Akademie der Tonkunst in Berlin and continued there for twenty-five years. At some point he became a respectable violinist and often played first violin in the Akademie orchestra. He also achieved success as a composer—his Spanish Dances for piano duet won the public’s favor and made him a fortune, but he also composed orchestral, stage, and chamber works in addition to his large body of piano music. As a conductor he began earning recognition in Germany and in England in the 1880s.

When Moszkowski left the Neue Akademie in 1897 it was to settle permanently in Paris with his wife. There he taught such famous pupils as Wanda Landowska and Thomas Beecham. Beginning about 1910, however, he went into as a decline as the result of changing musical tastes, lost investments because of World War I, worsening health, and the deaths of his wife and daughter. He died a recluse, in poverty, though old loyal friends had tried to help with a benefit concert in America. The proceeds arrived the year he died, too late to help him.

Moszkowski’s Suite, op. 71, dates from c. 1900, while he was still in his zenith. It might be called a sonata for violin duo and piano except that it does not contain a full-fledged sonata-form movement. Its four movements, however, follow the tradition of “serious,” though not heavy, concert music as opposed to the light, popular salon style that he cultivated in many of his piano pieces. The lush, dramatic first movement comes the closest to sonata form, with its contrast of themes—one full of counterpoint, interplay, and running passages and the other introduced chordally by the piano followed by give and take between the two violins. Moszkowski develops these ideas, but stops short of a full recapitulation, giving just enough to recall the opening.

The second movement, Allegro moderato, gives the impression a minuet, romanticized by sweetly resolving tensions and pleasing harmonic excursions. The “trio” appears twice and even maintains a presence in the final return of the “minuet,” which is condensed and altered to give a sense of closure—almost like a farewell scene.

The piano introduces the lovely slow movement with a low melody, which gives way to a poignant canon between the two violins. The fact that the dynamic level never rises above an impassioned piano (p) makes the vivacity of the finale particularly pronounced. The last movement barrels along in the manner of a tarantella (a fast dance named for Taranto in southern Italy and not for the tarantula or a dance to cure its bite). A slower “trio” provides contrast before the tarantella returns. A brilliant coda rushes headlong to the end, with the violins in perpetual motion, egged on by the “boom-chick” of the piano.

By Jane Vial Jaffe

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