Rudolf Viole (1825-67): The Piano Sonatas vol. 1
John Kersey, piano
Audio sample: Fugato section from the Viole Sonata op 1
Price: £13.99. Click the button below to purchase this CD securely online.
Total time: 77 mins 32 secs
1. Grande Sonate no. 1 in B flat minor (on a theme by Franz Liszt), op. 1 (dedicated to Hans von Bülow) (30’33”)
Sonata no. 2 in C major, op. 21 (dedicated to Ernst Hentschel):
2. Allegretto (5’18”)
3. Andante. Alla Marcia funebre (5’44”)
4. Presto (4’02”)
Sonata no. 3 in A minor, op. 22 (dedicated to Countess Louise von Ahlimb-Saldern):
5. Allegro (9’13”)
6. Andante (3’57”)
7. Prestissimo (4’23”)
8. Sonata no. 5 in D minor, op. 24 (dedicated to Franz Bendel) (13’58”)
We are grateful to Dr. Klaus Tischendorf and Peter Cook for supplying copies of scores for use in this recording.
Notes on the music
With this disc, Rudolf Viole half-emerges from the shadows. We know only bare details of his biography: studies with Henszchel in Berlin took him to Liszt in Weimar after 1850, and then a career as a piano teacher and on the staff of the Neue Zeitschrift fuer Musik in Berlin from 1857. And of the music, we are told by Prosnitz that there are some 91 works, mostly instructive in nature, but including eleven piano sonatas that occupy op 1 and opp 21-30. After his early death, Liszt edited a collection of 21 Etudes called Gartenlaube.
Things began well. The publication of Liszt’s B minor Sonata must have had a galvanic effect on Viole – as indeed it was to have on many others subsequently – for Viole’s op. 1 is effectively as much a tribute to Liszt’s work as Lyapunov’s later Transcendental Etudes were to Liszt’s eponymous studies. Liszt himself provided the motto theme for Viole during a lesson; bold and arresting, it has clear symphonic and heroic overtones. Within a year of the first appearance of the Liszt sonata, Viole’s own work was ready, and was dedicated to fellow Liszt pupil Hans von Bülow. Bülow reviewed Viole’s sonata in the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik, 95 (1856), describing it as “sweepingly innovatory, music of the future in the highest degree.” Indeed, the work is forward-looking, at times anticipating Reger, and (a characteristic of Viole’s style here) is much more formal in its approach to motivic development than Liszt (for example, the fugato section is considerably extended on lines that are more Beethovenian than Liszt’s own truncated example). Also striking is the extent of the unrelieved darkness and seriousness of the material – there is little to match Liszt’s scherzando moments, and instead a profundity anticipating Wagner is in effect throughout.
Viole’s melancholic and serious temperament may hold some clue as to why the reception of his op 1 did not lead to a more overt public acclaim. However, we know nothing of his life and character other than that which is betrayed by what limited amount of his music is available for review.
Some twenty opus numbers beyond op. 1, Viole returned to the sonata to begin a cycle of what was eventually to be eleven works in the form. William S. Newman, in “The Sonata Since Beethoven” wrote as follows:
“Four reviews ….. of the first six in Viole’s cycle of ten sonatas tell of a planned increase in complexity of form, treatment, harmonic richness and exploration, and technical difficulty, from one sonata to the next.”
However, Newman had never heard any of these works, nor had access to scores, which have only surfaced recently by way of Switzerland via England. His analysis was nevertheless correct in its broadest implications. The cycle of sonatas is almost designed as an exploration of the different problems that the form elicits and the various means by which those problems can be solved. These works, too, are entirely different in style and character from op. 1, which really should be considered an entirely separate achievement. Viole is clearly keenly aware of the heritage of the sonata throughout the Classical era and into that of his contemporaries, and references to the styles of other composers are cleverly integrated into his own personal outlook.
That outlook is at times highly surprising. Could the first movement of the Second Sonata be the first work in a neo-classical style? It sounds almost like a parody of Clementi or Galuppi, but with little touches here and there that quickly remind us of our real vantage-point. It was Erik Satie who would show, in his ‘Sonatine bureaucratique’, how the conventions of the Alberti bass, sequence and other stock devices could be subverted; his intention was humorous, where Viole’s is somewhat more philosophical. By the time we get to the extended and still developmental coda (a favourite formal device of Viole) there is no doubt that the aim is to reveal the expansion of convention to encompass Viole’s own distinctive stylistic traits.
Defining, rather than merely recognizing, those traits remains a challenge. The listener is unlikely to appreciate Viole at a first hearing. His music seems withdrawn, abstract and lacks emotionality. Only on repeated acquaintance does one start to realise that this constraint is the whole point of Viole’s world, with the music arranged according to elaborate formal patterns and often a complex, though rarely over-extended, philosophical design. Just as in Reger’s music, passages which might appear obscure are revealed to have strong motivic roles or to be transformative in a rhetorical style that actually owes not a little to Liszt and early Wagner. This conscious tension between the expressively loose and structurally tight is at the heart of the drama and contrast that typify Viole’s approach to the sonata, and it is only when we reach Prokofiev that these elements are once again balanced in this way.
The slow movements of the sonatas are enigmatic, rarely resting on obvious melody, and tersely stated without much development, unlike the extension of the first movements and episodic forms usually chosen for the finales. They are not generally the emotional epicentres of the works, but rather recall the role of Beethoven’s brief slow movement in op. 53 as a bridge between different worlds. The obsessive little funeral march in the Second only reluctantly lets go its dotted rhythm before an exploratory, angular passage introduces the germ that will form the main body of the argument of the finale.
The finales show a tendency towards the compound-time rondo, but with some degree of complexity both in the treatment of episodes (often developmental) and the return of earlier material. In the Second, the rhythm again becomes obsessive; in the Third, that obsession turns into a demonic virtuoso ride, with episodes driven to the edge and beyond.
The reader will by now have made an obvious comparison with Alkan in terms of this particular trait of obsession, the often-demanding writing for the instrument and the essential reticence and inwardness of the music’s ambit. It is largely Viole’s preference for Germanic rhetoric and the rhapsodic that separates the two composers, as well as a harmonic palette that with Viole is less adventurous, though by the standards of his time certainly not altogether conventional.
With the Fifth Sonata, Viole breaks through into a strongly unified structure in three main sections, uniting the fast-slow-fast model with the structure of exposition, development and recapitulation. The writing has become more characteristic of the Romantic virtuoso school, with several powerful octave passages, but Viole’s tendency towards classicism is still evident in the motivic material. The slow movement is reduced to a truncated recitative that is little more than heightened relief from the otherwise constant tension and conflict. Intensity is a prime characteristic of this music; where others would lighten the mood from time to time, Viole simply views a particular emotional world – and usually a tragic one – from varying perspectives. This vision may ultimately appear bleak, and in that establishing another connection with Alkan’s exploration of the farther reaches of human experience; yet it is certainly unlike anyone else of Viole’s time, and represents a considerable compositional achievement.