A One, and a Two...(Part Two)

A One, and a Two...(Part Two)

Written by Don Kaplan

“A One, and a Two (Part Two)” continues the exploration started in Issue 184 of pieces that are often overlooked because the usual suspects (large orchestral works, string orchestras, vocal music, small instrumental ensembles) are routinely scheduled to fill concert programs. Compositions for only one or two instruments are more than just “miniatures”: They can be every bit as engaging as larger works,  even if they are typically performed as encores or in spaces other than the usual venues. 

Eugène Ysaÿe'/Six Sonatas for Solo Violin/“Sonata No. 3 (Ballade)”/James Ehnes, violin (Video) Any assortment of classical music that lists works for a single instrument has to include one of the most famous pieces in string literature, Johann Sebastian Bach’s Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin, completed in 1720 but not published until 50 years later. Although violinists usually perform with other musicians in chamber and orchestral combinations, Bach’s six Sonatas and Partitas are significant because they set a new standard for how a solo violin can be used to play separate voices as well as combinations of melodic lines. Composers had written pieces for unaccompanied violin before, but none were as challenging as Bach’s compositions. The Sonatas and Partitas form an essential part of the violin repertoire: they are performed frequently and there are many LPs and CDs to choose from, recorded by a wide variety of artists playing either modern or period instruments. [1]

Solo instrumental music declined during the 19th century (see Brahms and Jolivet, below) but during the 20th century, composers once again began writing music for a single violin. Some of these new works used Bach’s composition as a guide and were similar to it in terms of structure and compositional technique. In light of this, instead of using Bach’s composition here as an example of solo violin music, I'm recommending a 20th century work by Belgian violinist/composer Eugène Ysaÿe since it’s directly related to the Sonatas and isn't as well-known or as accessible to the average concertgoer.

Ysaÿe’s Six Sonatas for Solo Violin were intended to imitate Bach's Sonatas and Partitas. Like Bach, Ysaÿe wanted his works to capture modern techniques as well as the musical style of his time. As you’ll see on the video, these solo sonatas – again, like Bach's Sonatas – are very demanding. Each sonata was dedicated to a prominent violinist of that era: The third sonata of 1923 recommended here was dedicated to composer and violinist George Enescu, regarded as one of the greatest musicians in Romanian history. 

This performance is a winner. Ehnes creates musical fireworks onstage while the (mostly) well-behaved musicians in the orchestra can be seen in the background enjoying the solo performance. However, notice that some members of the orchestra need to brush up on the rules of proper orchestra etiquette. (Yes, there is such a thing.) Orchestras have sets of rules to ensure good deportment during a concert, although the rules of stage etiquette vary from one orchestra to another. [2] According to The New York Times “From dress to choreographed movements and the courtly interplay between conductor and musicians, the classical music stage is rich in etiquette and sometimes hijinks that are not always obvious to the audience. Chronicling this tradition goes back to Hector Berlioz and his classic ‘Evenings With an Orchestra,’ a collection of essays dissecting the world of 19th-century orchestras and musical culture.” [3]

Rules of orchestral etiquette usually include the following:

  • You should only applaud with the audience when you are impressed by what you’ve just heard, or as a sign of enjoyment and approval.
  • If you want to show your enjoyment adhere to any of the following traditions: lightly shuffle your feet, wave your bow back and forth (a tradition that started in the late 18th century), or tap your bow on your music stand – but not if you're concerned about damaging your bow.
  • Follow the dress code even if you think you can't be seen: no flip flops, shorts, or tank tops, and keep your shoes on.
  • You can tap your toes but don't tap your feet; don't react in any way if you make a mistake; don't talk, make faces, or keep your phone on; don't conduct from your seat, talk to each other, or cross your legs on stage; and never look bored, even if you are.
  • Keep in mind that orchestras are scent-free zones. Always.

But I digress. Ehnes’ world-class performance, captured in video during an unidentified concert (or dress rehearsal?) at an unidentified venue, can be found here:


Enigma: Works for Solo Viola/Fritz Kreisler/“Recitativo und Scherzo-Caprice”/Dana Zemtsov, viola (Channel CCS SA 35714 SACD) Fritz Kreisler is generally remembered as a writer of dazzling salon music for the violin. He only wrote two pieces for solo violin, and the “Recitativo und Scherzo-Caprice” is not only dramatic but more technically demanding than Kreisler's familiar encore pieces. It was also composed as a response to Ysaÿe who had dedicated his fourth solo sonata to him. Although originally composed for the violin, this version for viola has been transposed down a fifth by Zemtsov's teacher Michael Kugel, giving the work a darker and more dramatic character. [4] It's unusual and a pleasure to have a disc devoted entirely to solo viola music; it's an even greater pleasure to have the talented Dana Zemtsov playing these works. As for the music, Zemtsov says:

“I must warn the listener, here one will scarcely find lyrical melodies and hear-warming beauty with which music is so often associated. Instead, there will be tales of war, perplexed wanderings through obscured labyrinths, intense cries of despair, sour tears of sorrow, maybe at places an ironic grin.”


Johannes Brahms/Clarinet Sonatas and Trio/“Clarinet Sonata No. 2, II”/Martin Fröst, clarinet (BIS 1353 SACD) If you're a fan of 19th century Romantic music, you already know listening to Brahms is a treat. The unusual instrumentation here – written for a clarinet instead of one of the usual chamber music suspects – makes this piece especially interesting.

Brahms' four clarinet pieces (the “Clarinet Sonata No. 2” was one of his last chamber music compositions) are now considered among the most outstanding contributions to clarinet literature. Brahms wrote them for Richard Mühlfeld and, in a letter to his friend Clara Schumann, Brahms said “Nobody can play the clarinet better than Mr. Mühlfeld...you have no idea quite what a remarkable clarinetist Mühlfeld is. He is the finest wind player that I know...” (March 17, 1891) Brahms’ contribution to the clarinet repertory provoked a resurgence of interest in the instrument. Even though the technical and expressive capabilities of the clarinet had made it one of the Romantic period’s favorite instruments, the clarinet had experienced a significant decline during the second half of the 19th century while the violin's popularity increased.

If you're looking for a wonderful movement from a great classical work (even if it does include the ubiquitous piano), here it is:


The Spirit of 176/Antonio Carlos Jobim/“Triste”/George Shearing and Hank Jones, pianos (Concord 1009-6 SACD) In 1988, two of the world’s greatest jazz pianists teamed up using two pianos to improvise music based on standards, and managed to record all 176 keys at the right time. The results are very different from the two-piano improvisation featured in Part One of “A One, and a Two...” (Bill Charlap and Renee Rosnes playing Lyle Mays' “Chorino”): still swinging with Shearing and Jones, but in a more relaxed manner. Writing about this recording, well-known historian and jazz critic Nat Hentoff said:

“I asked George what makes Hank distinctive – what sets him apart. ‘His very, very special touch and his special form of relaxation. For instance, he'll play a triplet, and it takes its time, but the tempo won't suffer....’ I asked Hank Jones what sets George Shearing apart. This was Hank’s answer: ‘For me, it's George's exquisite touch. And his relaxed way of playing. He also gets great definition in articulating his ideas. He's a composite of everything it takes to be a great musician.’

Clearly, these are two exceptionally compatible musicians. And being able to anticipate each other – both in choice of notes and also in turns of mood – they make these duets into a remarkable illumination of the art of mutual improvising. It should be noted that in terms of solos, Hank Jones in predominantly on the right channel of the stereo image and George Shearing in on the left.

[As] George Shearing says about [Hank], ‘His personality shows in his playing. He never gets ruffled.’ But there is such depth of lyricism in that seeming calm that Hank makes everything he plays take on subtly unexpected dimensions. And George, too, gets inside the song and makes it glow. The two together – as you can hear in this set – make for a flow of gentle astonishments.”

 Watch it here at 27'12" (or go to Track 8 under “Read More”) 


French Works for Clarinet and Piano/Francis Poulenc/“Clarinet Sonata FP 184: I.”/Sabine Meyer Meisenberg, clarinet and Oleg Maisenberg, piano (EMI 3 79787 2 CD) Poulenc's “Clarinet Sonata” was written as a memorial for composer Arthur Honegger, Poulenc's one-time colleague in the group called “Les Six.”[5] Although they were friends, Poulenc thought Honegger’s music was too heavy, and Honegger thought Poulenc's music was too light. During the decade prior to Honegger's death the two composers did develop a better appreciation for each other’s music. The first movement of the “Sonata” seems to reflect that progress: the opening few moments are as raucous as anything Honegger wrote, followed by Poulenc's typical flow of melodies that clearly reveal his style.


Sonatines pour flûte and piano/André Jolivet/ “Cinq Incantations No. III”/Philippe Bernold, flute with Alexandre Tharaud, piano (HMA/Harmonia Mundi 1951710 CD)[6] 19th century composers rarely wrote for flutes as a soloist due to the predominance of the piano and string quartet in chamber music, as well as the development of the orchestra in both the symphonic and operatic fields. Changes in the evolution of the tonal system during the 20th century inspired composers to write for more restricted forces and different types of ensembles. Since French composers especially liked flute music, they explored new approaches to the instrument. For example, the use of repetition in “Cinq Incantations III” (“repeat this passage at least three times” and "this passage may be repeated several times" are written in the score) reinforces the chant-like character and metrical nature of the music.


Claude Debussy/“Syrinx”/Emmanuel Pahud, flute (Warner/EMI Classics Cubus Film/Louisiana Museum of Modern Art Video) “Syrinx,” composed as part of the incidental music for the play Psyché by Gabriel Mourey, was originally called “Flûte de Pan.” Its second title refers to the amorous pursuit of the nymph Syrinx by the god Pan, in which Pan falls in love with Syrinx. However, Syrinx does not return the love: she turns herself into a water reed and hides in the marshes. Pan decides to cut reeds to make his instrumental pipes but, by doing so, accidentally kills his love.

“Syrinx” is considered a landmark in music history and may be the most performed, recorded, analyzed, and debated flute piece ever written.[7] It has played a pivotal role in the development of early 20th century solo flute music, and was the first unaccompanied piece written for the modern flute. It’s an indispensable part of any flutist's repertoire partly because, like Cinq Incantations, it gives  performers room for interpretation (some historians believe that “Syrinx” was first written without bar lines or breath marks).   


[1] The solo Cello Suites (written sometime between 1717-23) are considered to be another of Bach’s greatest musical achievements and need to be mentioned along with the violin solos. The Suites have been performed and recorded by many renowned cellists, been transcribed for numerous other instruments, and are some of the most frequently performed solo compositions ever written for cello. They are among the most technically demanding and emotionally intense pieces in the Baroque repertoire and, like the Violin Sonatas and Partitas, employ a wide range of complex playing techniques.

[2] Orchestra members usually have a separate set of rules to follow during rehearsals as well. And concertgoers, although they probably aren't aware of it, have rules to follow, too.

[3] Daniel J. Wakin, “Cracking the Secret Orchestral Codes,” Feb. 13, 2005, The New York Times.

[4] Kugel is a Ukrainian virtuoso who has helped build the viola repertoire by adding many of his own transcriptions and compositions.

[5] In 1920 the critic Henri Collet grouped Poulenc with five other young French composers, calling them “Les Six”( Arthur Honegger, Darius Milhaud, Georges Auric, Germaine Tailleferre, and Louis Durey). Although they reacted in the same way to the emotionalism of 19th-century Romantic music and the impressionism of Claude Debussy, they were in fact united by friendship more than by aesthetic ideals.

[6] The original issue, Sonatines..., appears on YouTube. The CD information given here is from the reissue titled La flûte Soliste au XXe Siècle.

[7] Price, Kirsten Jan. “Debussy's Syrinx: mystery, myth, and a manuscript,” Flutist Quarterly, fall 2008.


Header image: George Shearing Quintet, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Hugo van Gelderen/Anefo/public domain.

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