Piano Sonata No. 2 A major op. 21 (1910-1911)

Piano Sonata No. 2 was written during the years 1910-11, and published by the Viennese Universal Edition as early as 1912. The composer dedicated this work to his Russian friend, Natalia Davydov [Davidoff] from the estate of Wierzbówka, which neighboured Tymoszówka. She was a person of great artistic culture, who remained an admirer and connaisseur of Szymanowski’s music to the end of her life.
Sonata in A major is the last of Szymanowski’s piano work originating from the late Romanticism tradition. In contrast to the earlier, “school” compositions, such as Sonata in C minor or Fantasia in C major – one cannot discern in it traces of imitation of one or another model; what we do encounter here is the composer following the legacy left by the great ancestors to its outer limits; taking up a creative dialogue with the tradition. Sonata No. 2 represents Szymanowski’s final reckoning with his Romantic heritage within which he developed as a young composer; at the same time, he declares in it, “at the top of his voice,” the birth of his own, original style.
This monumental work consists of two parts. The first part (Allegro assai. Molto appassionato) maintains the traditional form of sonata allegro. Its dramatic content is built up through strongly contrasting themes. The first of them, highly chromaticised and almost atonal, is violent and full of tensions, while the second one is based on a tuneful and lyrical melody. The second part (Tema. Allegretto tranquillo. Grazioso) brings a carefully crafted combination of the theme with eight variations, and a four-part fugue which crowns the whole. Having mastered at an earlier stage (in op. 3 and op.10) the secrets of constructing forms of variations, the composer creates here an exceptionally original cycle of characteristic variations, each constitutuing an individual, far-advanced transformation of the theme. Alongside the bitonal variation IV, with its burlesque character, and the even bolder harmonically, almost totally atonal variation VII, we find here modern stylisations of old dances – sarabande and minuet (variations V and VI respectively). In the final fugue, the three-bar theme originating from the motifs of the initial variation theme undergoes such significant transformations that at the end it might be described as a double (i.e. two-theme) fugue. It ends with a virtuoso coda, reminiscent of the main thought of the first part of the work.
The first artist to perform Sonata No. 2 was Arthur Rubinstein in Warsaw on 7 May 1911, and then on 1 December of the same year at the memorable concert at the Berlin Philharmonic, devoted to the works of Szymanowski, which also saw the performance of Symphony No. 2, conducted by Grzegorz Fitelberg. German critics responded with a degree of reserve to the young Polish composer; for instance, one review wrote: “If the composer forces himself towards greater transparency, to a sensible limit and concentration, if he can restrain his excessive fondness for contrapuntal tricks, polyphonic complications and orchestral excesses, we will have high hopes of him” (Willy Renz, “Die Musik”, January 1912).
From today’s perspective, those “contrapuntal tricks” and “polyphonic complications”, as well as many other avantgarde stylistic features of Sonata No. 2, testify rather to the artistic value of this, the first fully mature of Szymanowski’s piano compositions. However, these tricks undoubtedly affected the virtually finger-breaking technical demands placed on the pianists, including those of today. After Rubinstein, for many years the only virtuoso to include this work in his regular repertory was Sviatoslav Richter. The composer himself thought that his Sonata No. 2 would present the pianist with a challenge comparable to Beethoven’s Große Sonate für das Hammerklavier op. 106, or to Liszt’s Transcendental Etudes: “I don’t know who will be playing all that, because it’s long and devilishly difficult”.