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Grieg was an accomplished pianist and toured regularly, mostly performing his own music. In addition to solo and duo piano pieces, these concerts usually included some of his songs (with his wife a frequent collaborator) and often one of his three violin sonatas. Grieg considered the sonatas to be among his finest works and he often played the piano part for them, at social gatherings as well as public concerts. “They represent,” he said in 1900, “periods in my development – the first naïve, rich in ideas; the second national; and the third with a wider horizon.”

It was the great Norwegian violinist Ole Bull who “discovered” Grieg, in the sense that it was he who persuaded Grieg’s parents to send him to the Leipzig Conservatory in 1858 at the age of 15. An ardent nationalist in many ways (he bought about 27 square miles of land in Pennsylvania and founded a utopian community called New Norway there in 1852), Bull used Norwegian folk elements in his own playing and compositions, and his influence can be clearly heard in Grieg’s Second Violin Sonata, which was composed in three joyful weeks the month after Grieg got married.

Grieg’s happiness is not immediately apparent, in an operatically sad introduction marked Lento doloroso. But that is an emotional feint that only puts the leaping glee of the ensuing spring dance in high relief. The taut sonata form of the movement, with its textbook exposition of two contrasting themes, development, recapitulation, and coda, shows that Grieg paid attention during his four somewhat forlorn years in Leipzig. But the unbridled zest of the dance is purely personal Grieg, with his ear on Norwegian folk music.

Mercurial by temperament, Grieg never sustained a truly slow movement for long. The second movement of this sonata is marked Allegretto tranquillo, and though it does begin and end in the minor mode, the music seems to gravitate irresistibly to dance again, with clear references to the first movement and a peaceful country scene in the middle.

The finale is pure dance, boldly projected into conservatory-approved form. Its shadows are both passionate and fleeting, overwhelmed by sheer sunny exultation.

-John Henken