Navarra, Op. 33 for two violins and piano
February 20, 2022 – Paul Huang, violin; Danbi Um, violin; Juho Pohjonen, piano
Pablo de Sarasate won international admiration for his violin playing, characterized by an unusually sweet and pure tone, technical perfection, and a wider vibrato than was common at the time. He dazzled audiences all over Europe, Russia, and North and South America. The esteem in which he was held by many composers is revealed by the large number of compositions dedicated to him: Bruch’s Second Violin Concerto and Scottish Fantasy, Saint-Saëns’s First and Third Violin Concertos and Introduction and Rondo capriccioso, Lalo’s First Violin Concerto and Symphonie espagnole, Dvořák’s Mazurek, Joachim’s Opus 11 Variations, and Wieniawski’s Second Violin Concerto. Sarasate was also one of the first violinists to make recordings—in 1904—which are remarkable despite the drawbacks of early recording techniques.
Sarasate was at his best as a composer when he relied on folk tunes or other composers’ themes. His most popular compositions are his Zigeunerweisen (Gypsy Airs), four books of Spanish Dances, Fantasy on Themes from Carmen, his Introduction and Tarantella, and the present Navarra. He naturally drew on the folk dances of his native Spain, even when creating his own melodies in a folklike character. He generally did little to alter his basic presentation of these themes, but then subjected them to virtuosic variations to show off his skills. Most of his works begin with a slow, rhapsodic section followed by a lively section of showstopping brilliance.
In Navarra, published in 1889, Sarasate pays tribute to his birthplace of Pamplona in the Navarre region of Spain. His motivation for composing for two violins and piano (the accompaniment was later orchestrated) is unknown, but both violin parts are extremely virtuosic, with the added dimension that all these pyrotechnic passages—whether in parallel thirds, trills, or contrary-motion arpeggios—require exact synchronization. Part of Sarasate’s inspiration was the Spanish music of the gaitas, a small recorder-like instrument whose range and style he imitates in harmonics, tremolo (fast repeated notes), and lightning passage work for the violins. Together the two soloists play an introductory recitative that launches a lively dance. The middle section changes key and adopts a singing style before breaking out in unabashed virtuosic filigree. The opening dance resumes in yet more brilliance to which Sarasate adds a showstopping coda.
By Jane Vial Jaffe