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MAY 17, 2024


Vicky HyunJin Lee, Violin

Hugh Sung, Piano


Prokofiev Violin Sonata No.1 in F minor, Opus 80

“Wind passing through a graveyard…” This is how Sergei Prokofiev described the hauntingly ethereal passage at the end of the first movement of the Violin Sonata No. 1 in F minor. Hushed, wispy scales rise and fall in the violin over a series of numb, ambivalent piano chords. This chilly passage, which is anything but definitive or conclusive, returns later in the final movement. It encapsulates the atmosphere of the Sonata, perhaps the darkest, most lamenting music Prokofiev ever wrote.

When Prokofiev began work on this piece in 1938, Stalin’s Great Terror was in full swing and Hitler’s invasion of Russia was imminent. Finding its completion “difficult,” the composer set the work aside, moving on to the Fifth Symphony and the much different Second Violin Sonata (a transcription of the Flute Sonata, Op. 94). The First Sonata was finally completed in 1946. Prokofiev dedicated it to his friend, the violinist David Oistrakh. I was fortunate to be able to study this piece with Oleh Krysa, a prominent student of Oistrakh.

The influence of Handel’s violin sonatas is evident in the “slow-fast-slow-fast” structure of the movements. The first movement (Andante assai) opens with a quietly ominous statement deep in the low register of the piano. It’s a persistent presence throughout the movement, almost like a distant echo of a baroque passacaglia bass line. This dark, growling voice always seems to be lurking just beneath the surface. A few moments later, this passage seems to evoke the strident tones of Russian bells, while strangely anticipating the meditative, minimalist patterns of Arvo Pärt.

The ferocious second movement (Allegro brusco) erupts with hammer blows in both instruments. There’s a sardonic, over-the-top romanticism to the second theme, with its sudden harmonic twists and turns. There is no escaping the unrelenting fury of this music. Just at the moment it seems to reach a point of cadence, teasing us with the expectation of a respite, this sonic nightmare morphs into something new and even more terrifying.

After all of this, the third movement (Andante) takes us to a much different place: a hazy, impressionistic dreamscape, glassy, numbly detached, strange, and quietly haunting.

The final movement erupts with the abandon of a wild Russian folk dance. As one passages unfolds into the next, it’s music which never finds a resting point. The movement’s climax brings the sonata full circle. There is no true resolution, only a sense of inevitability and eternally lamenting voices.

Ravel Violin Sonata No.2, M.77

Maurice Ravel was born in Ciboure, France in 1875. He showed exceptional promise as a pianist, and was sent to study at the Paris Conservatoire by his parents. After being expelled from the Conservatoire in 1895 for neglecting his academic duties, Ravel returned several years later in 1898 when he began to study composition with the well-known French composer Gabriel Fauré. Ravel later became associated also with several of the great figure of the Paris scene from these times, including Claude Debussy, who had a great influence on the composer, and the impresario Diaghilev, who commissioned Ravel for several works, but with whom he later fell out. Ravel’s music came to be characterised by its adventurous harmonic style and inventive exploration of instrumental timbres, features which are present in this sonata as well as many other works. The sonata No. 2 for violin and piano was Ravel’s last chamber work, completed in 1927 just before his successful visit to America, where he was to meet and be influenced by other key composers of the time such as George Gershwin.

The sonata consists of three very different movements in very contrasting styles. The first, a floating and airy allegretto is characterised by bare harmony and a difficult to place tonality. The opening theme is presented in wide sweeping phrases, with changing bar lengths extending the arcs of the melody. The movement reaches a climax as elements of the opening theme are deconstructed to form a repeating melodic pattern culminating in a frantic tremolo passage in the violin which gradually fades away whilst moving through a variety of keys. Finally, a lyrical melody emerges from chaos, returning the movement to the more serene atmosphere of the opening. Eventually the melodic line becomes so elongated that its focus fixes on rocking between only two notes before it dies away entirely. The second movement of the sonata is unusually entitled ‘blues’, and begins with solo pizzicato chords.


The piano plays along with this for a while but provides very subversive harmonic accompaniment. The primary melody of this movement emerges from this atmosphere with a blues-like quality as the title suggests, using syncopated rhythm and unusual playing directions such as slides to achieve this stylistic feel. The blues melody in the violin part is joined by playful counter-melodies in the piano, but the piano later takes over almost entirely as the violin assumes an accompanying role with virtuosic pizzicato chords. The violin briefly interrupts with the blues melody after this, but now it has become a screaming fortissimo melody in comparison to the earlier quiet and nostalgic feel. After another pizzicato violin section with piano melody, the cacophony abruptly ends, and the quiet, soulful melody returns, this time with phrases exchanged between violin and piano. The final movement of this sonata is another contrast, beginning with a series of rhythmic patterns which seem to gradually get faster and faster, a tempo is eventually settled upon, and from this point relentless progress of the Perpetuum mobile has begun. The relentless feel of this movement does not resolve until the very end, when after a non-stop flow of virtuosic passagework a repeated ostinato melody emerges played in octaves. This melody goes through a variety of patterns as it reaches a climax, finally resolving in a hammered repetition of the final pattern. This work is both a challenging and hugely exciting one to perform. A wide variety of stylistic playing is called for between movements, and many technical challenges are also presented, particularly in the final movement.


Brahms's Violin Sonata No.3 in D minor, Op. 108

The key of D minor was one that Brahms rarely used in his large-scale instrumental works, and one is left to wonder whether the towering shadow of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony—in D minor—had anything to do with his caution in settling into that tonality. Clearly the tonality aroused Brahms’ most dramatic instincts, yielding music of great urgency, strength, and emotional intensity.

The D-minor Sonata (1888), Brahms’ last of three works for the violin-piano duo and the most muscular of the set, represents the composer at the height of his powers. With all of his symphonies and concertos behind him, and with only a relatively small number of compositions yet to come from his serious and still careful pen, Brahms shows himself to be a master intellect and craftsman, here in complete control of his distinctive materials. Indeed, in the first movement, the composer’s methods become an object lesson in Classic-Romantic procedures.

The dominant elements of the movement are very nearly all contained within the first four measures: three ideas in the violin—an ascending fourth, a falling eight-note figure, and a long-held note followed by a quick note—and, the fourth, the piano’s accompanying line in staggered (thus restless) single notes an octave apart. It is these highly concentrated motifs, so mysterious in their first appearances, which are put through a huge variety of compositional and emotional transformations. The most remarkable of these is in the development section, where the piano intones a pedal point on “A” for 46 measures, above which both violin and piano rhapsodize in a succession of key. This dramatic procedure occurs again at movement’s end, where, however, the action moves from the storms of D minor to the sunshine of D major.

The latter tonality is maintained for the Adagio second movement, a place of tenderness (and only momentary passion) that gives appropriate respite from the strenuous activity of the preceding movement.

The Scherzo movement peers with no little wit and élan from inside its minor-keyed façade (F-sharp minor), like a provocative child making all manner of expressions out of its exceedingly simple thematic physiognomy.

The finale is kaleidoscopic in its changing moods, which range from impetuosity to Hungarian pensiveness to chorale-like calm. Through it all, we have Brahms at his most impressive, at his most compelling. 

2016 by Vicky Hyunjin Lee.  All rights reserved.

Ravel Tzigane

In the summer of 1922, just as he began his orchestration of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, Ravel visited England for several concerts of his music, and in London he heard a performance of his brand-new Sonata for Violin and Cello by Jelly d’Aranyi and Hans Kindler. d’Aranyi must have been a very impressive violinist, for every composer who heard her was swept away by her playing―and by her personality (Bartók was one of the many who fell in love with her). Ravel was so impressed that he stayed after the concert and talked her into playing gypsy tunes from her native Hungary―which went on until 5 AM.

Tzigane probably got its start that night. Inspired by both d’Aranyi’s playing and the fiery music, Ravel set out to write a virtuoso showpiece for the violin based on similar melodies (Tzigane means “gypsy”). Its composition was much delayed, however, and Ravel did not complete Tzigane for another two years. Trying to preserve a distinctly Hungarian flavor, he wrote the piece for violin with the accompaniment of a luthéal, a device that attaches to a piano and gives it a jangling sound typical of the Hungarian cimbalon. The first performance, by Jelly d’Aranyi with piano accompaniment, took place in London on April 26, 1924, and later that year Ravel prepared an orchestral accompaniment. In whatever form it is heard, Tzigane remains an audience favorite.

While Tzigane seems drenched in an authentic gypsy spirit, all of its themes are Ravel’s own. It is unusual for a French composer to be so drawn to this type of music. Usually, it was composers from central Europe―such as Liszt, Brahms, Joachim and Hubay–who felt its charm, but Ravel enters fully into the spirit and creates a virtuoso showpiece redolent of campfires and smoldering dance tunes. Tzigane opens with a long cadenza (nearly half the length of the entire piece) that keeps the violinist solely on the G-string across the span of the entire first page. Gradually, the accompaniment enters, and the piece takes off. Tzigane is quite episodic, and across its blazing second half Ravel demands such techniques from the violinist as artificial harmonics, left-hand pizzicatos, complex multiple-stops, and sustained octave passages. Over the final pages, the tempo gradually accelerates until Tzigane rushes to its scorching close, marked Presto.

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