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Grieg, Schumann, Chopin Sonatas

Revel in Romantic sonatas by Grieg, Schumann, and Chopin with this early ArtistLed release.

Edvard Grieg
Sonata in a minor, Op. 36 (1883)

Robert Schumann
Adagio and Allegro, Op. 70 (1849)

Frederic Chopin
Sonata in g minor, Op. 65 (1845-6)


Wu Han (piano), David Finckel (cello)


Listen to AudioNotes:


Notes on the Music:

Edvard Grieg (1843-1907)
Sonata for Piano and Cello in a minor, Op. 36 (1883)

"Artists like Bach and Beethoven erected churches and temples on ethereal heights. My aim in my music is exactly what Ibsen says about his plays: 'I want to build homes for the people in which they can be happy and contented'". Like Bartok, Grieg discovered his musical mission in the culture of his native land. Schooled formally in Leipzig, he rejected rule-bound composing and instead adopted the romantic spirit of Schumann. He traveled widely and met many great musicians, including Brahms, Wagner, Tchaikovsky and Liszt, who was an admirer. Perhaps his broad knowledge of music contributed to insecurities about his own compositional technique; it took him over six months to complete the cello sonata. "Every other day I decide not to compose because I am less and less satisfied with myself." (1882).

1 Allegro agitato

How quickly the first of many storms in this movement comes up! This is in no way the relatively calm "La Mer" of Debussy, but the crashing waves and howling winds of the north. The cello begins with the main theme quietly over the piano's nervous accompaniment, but the piano, like the storm itself, soon rises to fever pitch and all but drowns the cello in crashing chords and octaves. All this is over in a few moments, closed by a brief and even more violent coda, and we are left in stunned silence. Then, magically, three peaceful C-major chords announce the arrival of fair weather (or the second subject, if you must). As the cello sings the theme over rich harmonies so typical of Grieg, one can feel the warmth of the sun or a glowing fire. An expressive dialogue between the instruments carries the theme through various keys before C major re-emerges, this time excitedly and we are swept by cascades of arpeggios into the development. One senses trouble on hearing the second subject in a minor key and sure enough, big storm number two soon hits in F# minor. Frantically, the cello and piano exchange lightning bolts in ever-quicker succession. This storm never totally dies, and reappears in full force again as the recapitulation. In the coda as expected, we are again drenched and blown about, hopefully lashed to the mast.

2 Andante molto tranquillo

The gorgeous slow movement opens with one of the most poignantly beautiful chord progressions imaginable, as if the piano itself is dropping down from heaven. By the cello entrance we are seated on rich earth. I find particularly inspiring Grieg's seemingly endless resource of harmonies which color the single, oft-repeated notes of the melody. Contentedness gives way to brooding, however and tempers rise,giving way to succeedingly violent outbursts, culminating in a passage where the pianist is called upon to practically bang the piano to pieces. As if knocked unconscious, we hear, in pianississimo, a trace of the first theme, and gradually warmth begins to flow in our veins as the first theme returns, this time with an even more beautiful harmonization. After a climax worthy of Rachmaninoff, a delicate and sentimental coda concludes the movement.

3 Allegro molto e marcato

Grieg's finale is in folk-style, with a jumping, dancing theme. However, there is also a bit of mystery here in the ghostly little solo cello line which bridges from the slow movement. It's like something that you know will come back to haunt you later, and it does! After an exuberant virtuousic episode, two big cantabile phrases in the piano and cello bring in the second theme, which is actually made from the first subject slowed to half tempo. But how different it sounds! Would you have recognized it? Of course we're still in Norway, so we must have some more storms and sailing before we get to a very curious passage which, although obviously out of Grieg's imagination, seems like an explosion brewing in a nuclear reactor. When the blast finally comes it goes on and on, and, as if saved by aliens, we are transported out by the reappearance of the opening other-worldly melody, now harmonized. A full recapitulation follows, with a brilliant coda in which the mystery theme makes its final, triumphant, and ultimately dominating appearance.

Robert Schumann (1810-1856)
Adagio and Allegro, Op. 70

The amazing life of Robert Schumann rivals Beethoven's in its intensity and complexity. Obsessive, paranoid, brilliant, wayword, over-emotional, and given to fantasy, he walked a very fine line between sanity and insanity for most of his adult life, finally flinging himself into the Rhein at age 44. The year 1849 was a good one for him during which he composed some twenty important works. Schumann composed largely in creative bursts in which he would focus all his attention on a certain kind of repertoire. In the springtime he apparently became quite enamored of the french horn, writing a concerto for not one but four horns and orchestra, and the Adagio (originally called Romanza) and Allegro recorded here. (The manuscript gives the option of playing the solo part on the cello and violin as well.)

The Adagio is one of the most romantic (and frankly, in my opinion, erotic) partnerships between two instruments imaginable. For forty-one bars the cello and piano exchange melody in a practically unbroken phrase; it's lovers' conversation, sometimes complementing, interrupting, questioning, but in the end finally uniting (after some suggestive turbulence) in a calm Ab major. The piano lets out two little sighs and one big one and the cello responds with a tender and noble cadential flourish. The coda has a radiance and peace not heard before, and for want of a better metaphor, the lovers soon drift off to sleep. The atmosphere is then totally shattered by the Allegro which begins as though shot from a gun. Interrupted only momentarily by a briefly slower section in a totally unrelated key, the Allegro charges to the finish in a joyful, unbroken stream of energy. Because of the key (Ab major) the Allegro is somewhat awkward for the cello, but the struggle to reach the high Eb, as on the french horn, makes a successful ascent all the more rewarding.

Frederic Chopin (1810-1849)
Sonata for Piano and Cello in g minor, Op. 65 (1845-6)

Chopin's Cello Sonata represents an extraordinary effort on the part of a composer who, only a few years from the end of his life, determined to master a genre he had never before attempted. Only five chamber works by Chopin exist; three of them are for cello and piano. That the cello was Chopin's favorite instrument after the piano is not in doubt for me! In poor health and the middle of an anguished break-up with George Sand, Chopin found it within himself to labor extensively on this work, making numerous sketches and revisions. "...with my cello sonata I am now contented, now discontented." The result is a grand sonata on a scale with Chopin's most serious and significant works. A big, virtuosic cello part is counter-balanced by masterful piano writing in which Chopin never compromises his unique style. All cellists owe a debt of gratitude to Auguste Franchomme (1808-1884), Chopin's close friend during his later years, for whom the sonata was written.

1 Allegro moderato

A melancholy piano solo foreshadows a long and complex story. A fragment of the main theme is introduced, supported by rich and intense harmonies, and gives way to an impressionistic flourish. The cello, interrupting, states the theme in its entirey, and both instruments proceed together through melodic episodes, culminating in a heroic transformation of the theme. The excitement quickly dissipates to allow for appearance of the second subject, beautifully still and thoughtful, only ten notes long. As if sacred, this theme is not further developed, heard again only in its original form. Chopin continues rhapsodically, bringing in new melodies in both cello and piano, until a spectacular climax is reached in which the two instruments play a rapid scale in opposite directions. The exposition is repeated, and the development is again introduced by a piano solo. A standard recapitulation is abandoned in favor of a sudden reappearance of the magical second subject. The movement concludes in appropriately stormy fashion.

2 Scherzo

The second movement's energetic theme uses repeated notes in rapid succession, giving it a hammering momentum, especially when played by the piano. This scherzo is almost quirky, alternating lyrical phrases with thunderous chords and virtuosic flourishes. In the cantabile trio, the cello is given the upper hand the whole way, spinning out a seamless melody over plangent harmonies reminiscent of a folk song.

3 Largo

The heart of the work is indeed the gorgeous adagio, as tranquil and brief as its neighbors are troubled and lengthy. Words cannot adequately describe this little gem, the only really extended peaceful experience in the sonata.

4 Finale: Allegro

The finale is again in a minor key, its main theme dramatic and complex. There is something of a martial air about the first and second subjects, which both utilize dotted rhythms. But seriousness soon turns to fun as the dotted rhythms, repeated over and over, are turned into a rollicking roller-coaster ride. The main theme then reappears, but Chopin has worked it into a canon and a highly contrapuntal episode comprises the development section. The second subject returns, curiously drained of its energy by the disappearance of the dotted rhythms. The roller coaster leads us to an even faster coda, full of brilliant writing for both instruments. Chopin's great work ends triumphantly, its penultimate chord somehow reminding us of the magnitude of the experience.

Chopin, Schumann and Grieg: connections & comparisons

  1. •Chopin & Schumann born the same year

  2. •Chopin one of Schumann's idols

  3. •Schumann one of Grieg's idols - heard Clara Schumann play her husband's piano concerto

  4. •Chopin & Schumann both writers at early age, and involved throughout their lives in literature

  5. •Schumann & Grieg both founders of musical societies

  6. •Chopin & Grieg both drew on folk music from their native lands

  7. •Chopin & Schumann both heard and were inspired by Paganini

  8. •Chopin & Schumann met at least twice

  9. •All three wrote great piano concertos

  10. •All three knew Liszt

Behind the Scenes
The BBC Music Magazine Recording

The idea for our BBC recording was born at a dinner I had at the Ivy Restaurant in London in January 1996. After a good deal of wine I began to put forth about our recording philosophy. Present at the table was Fiona Maddocks, editor of the BBC Music Magazine, who liked what she heard and offered to feature a recording of ours on the magazine cover. It was not even until the next morning that I learned the recording would be heard by over 300,000 people. I realized that if a small fraction of them liked what they heard and would buy another record, I could have a company.

Fiona has a thorough understanding of ArtistLed. In May she visited an equipment testing session we had at the American Academy, and met Da-Hong. In the spirit of ArtistLed, Fiona has let us do everything to our satisfaction. We chose the repertoire, produced the disc, wrote the track-by-track listening guide. Gordon Jee, our designer, did all the preliminary work on the cover. It is truly an ArtistLed release, blessed with world-wide distribution.

In choosing the repertoire we decided on pieces in which we could most obviously express our musical relationship, for the benefit of thousands who had never heard us. The Chopin is the very first work we played together. We made a practice recording of it during our first recital tour, and on hearing it I realized that someday I had to record with Wu Han. Our early work on the sonata was more than just musical: it was the building of our relationship. The spirit and excitement of that time still lives in the sonata for us, and we want to share it with everyone. The Schumann and Grieg speak so directly to the emotions that they seemed a good match for the Chopin. Also, many connections and similarities exist between the three composers (see liner notes).

The recording was done at the American Academy of Arts and Letters in New York. The hall is very reverberant and gives the sound a grand dimension suited to the music. It's a big record for the piano, and we were lucky to get a powerhouse of an instrument from our friend Ricard de La Rosa at Pro Piano. We were extra careful with the balances and spent three and a half days fine-tuning the sound before actually beginning to record. Once set, things went quickly and we finished the sessions in a day and a half.

On the technical side, this disc is our first tapeless, 24-bit recording. This means that the signal from the mikes, after being translated into digital language, is fed directly into the computer. All editing and post-production activities are done in the higher performance 24-bit format, resulting in a better sounding recording. The 24-bit format is then reduced to 16-bit at the very final stage of the production, just before cutting the glass master from which the discs themselves are printed. (Current CD technology can only allow 16-bit word-length. As the 24-bit format becomes standardized consumer CD format one day, our 24-bit master recording will be ready for it.)

©1996 David Finckel

Produced by David Finckel and Wu Han
Recording engineer: Da-Hong Seetoo
Photos: Christian Steiner
Design and Art Direction: Gordon Jee
Steinway piano by Pro Piano
Recording date and location: September 13-14, 1996
American Academy of Arts and Letters, New York