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CD Review

Johannes Brahms

Violin Sonatas

  • Sonata #1 in G Major, Op. 78 (1879)
  • Sonata #2 in A Major, Op. 100 (1886)
  • Sonata #3 in D minor, Op. 108 (1888)
Mela Tenenbaum, violin
Richard Kapp, piano
Ess.a.y Recordings CD1085 68:13
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Summary for the Busy Executive: Valediction Forbidding Mourning.

It interests me that the sonatas Brahms wrote for his own instrument, the piano, should hold players and listeners less than his others. The youth of the piano sonatas may have something to do with that. I myself find them turgid, overstuffed, and surprisingly monochromatic, unlike his Rhapsodies and his late Intermezzi, for example. I suspect, though I can't prove, that first, his player's facility lulled his composing conscience and got him through passages his older, cannier self would have worked over more and that second, his youthful desire to be taken seriously led him down the path of unmitigated heft.

As shown by the opus numbers, the violin sonatas all come from his maturity and give off an unrivalled richness. Nevertheless, complete recordings of all three have tended to come along rarely, for some reason. They speak of the best of their time, and not just in music. I listen to them and think of writers like Eliot, Dickens, and Tolstoy – the complex textures, the depth of thought. They strike me as hard for a player to crack – not technically, but emotionally and structurally. There's so much going on in all of them, that they confront musicians (both violinists and pianists) with an overwhelming array of choices to create a coherent shape. The musical coherence is the more important, but the emotional choices determine the individuality of the interpretation.

The opening movement of the first sonata – actually, the composer's fifth; he destroyed no less than four earlier ones – always reminds me of a large ship leaving the harbor. It hardly seems to move, yet one senses a powerful drive underneath, as in the opening to the Brahms fourth symphony. Soon the movement launches out with a sense of inevitability and a forward impulse that may relax but never quits. The overall mood is a gentle one, but occasionally a more rapturous and a more agitated temper (in the development) breaks through. The second movement, in A-B-A form, inhabits a space somewhere between chorale and song, very close in its lyricism (and in time) to the Violin Concerto. Even here, however, one senses now and then a deep sadness in the music, not always caught by players. The third movement shows affinities with not only the first movement, especially with the first few notes – a variant of the head of the opening theme – but with the Sturm und Drang of the final movement of the first piano concerto. In the motific manipulation, we see the strong influence of Beethoven, especially with something like the Fifth Symphony. When the movement gets going – a rondo, incidentally – we hear the Brahms song Regenlied ("rain-song"), which led to the sonata's nickname, Regen. The song provides the material of the movement. Unlike its cousin in the piano concerto, however, this movement hints at grand passion without the acting-out of the earlier work.

The second sonata, composed at the Swiss lake resort of Thun, has often been called the sunniest of the sonatas. It certainly plays off of pastoral musical elements, but it's seldom all that cheerful. For cheer, you generally need Dvořák. But it does strike me as the most intimate of the three, as well as the most sophisticated in its handling of lyrical and folk elements. The first subject group of the opening movement, for example, has a delicate, wildflower quality, anticipating Elgar in his tenderest moods, as well as an associative movement from theme to theme, fairly rare in Brahms, who tends to weld passages together. The relatively short second movement increases the tenderness, with a bit of folk-dancing – a Brahms Laendler if you like – thrown in for contrast. The movement as a whole combines elements of slow movement and scherzo in its brief span. The final movement is a bit of an anomaly, conceived on a slightly grander scale than the previous two. It breathes deeper and ups the rhetorical ante – just a bit; it never shouts or hectors. I hear in it adumbrations of the third sonata, begun at roughly the same time and finished two years later.

The third stands a bit apart from its predecessors. In four rather than three movements, it is imagined on a bigger, more dramatic scale. It speaks in a more public kind of rhetoric, with stronger contrasts reminiscent of Brahms' earlier music. The Double Concerto follows fairly closely, and you could argue that both works share an emotional world. Perhaps because of this, I believe more violinists have recorded it, including just about every big fiddling name you can think of. Heifetz and Kapell set my standard, a passionate reading, with Heifetz putting out heroic sound.

The first movement is, in the Biblical phrase, full of trouble. The second sings gravely, rather than sweetly, with a gorgeous "big tune" – one of Brahms' best – as its main subject. The brief third-movement scherzo bustles like an angry man, although well short of the demonic. The lid comes off in the finale, an immediate explosion of energy followed by simmerings building up to further boil-overs. For me, this is another "Beethoven-haunted" movement, perhaps by one of the stormier piano sonatas or the "Kreutzer" violin sonata. It's not a matter of mere cribbing. Rather, Brahms seems to have absorbed the majesty of those works and given back something entirely his own. The counterpoint in this movement stands more downstage than in any of his other violin sonatas, so that relatively monophonic passages hit like hammers. The entire sonata aims for big feeling and hits its mark.

For me, the Josef Suk-Julius Katchen collaboration remains the benchmark of the integral recordings (available on Decca 466393). However, saying that means merely, fine as it is, that I've grown accustomed to it over the years. These sonatas, like Beethoven's piano sonatas or Bach's WTC, give performers huge interpretive territory. They cry out for different points of view.

Richard Kapp, among other things director of the Philharmonia Virtuosi, was diagnosed with a particularly devastating form of cancer last year. This may be his final recording. I give away nothing not in Kapp's own liner notes.

That these performances are here at all is due in no small measure to the Czernowitzian (home of Emmanuel Feuermann, among others) violinist Mela Tenenbaum, whom Kapp introduced to American audiences. Together, they've made a remarkable series of recordings, including such things as concerti by Mozart, Ghedini, and Klebanov, Beethoven sonatas, and violin bon-bons. Essentially, she pushed him into learning the Brahms sonatas in the first place. After intense work over a few months, she then insisted that they record. The results, from an engineering standpoint, are good but not studio-quality. They recorded in Kapp's living room. So if you value sonic elegance above all, you had probably better look elsewhere.

In the Brahms, how does this partnership stack up against other, more famous names? I've made no secret in the past of how much I admire these musicians, especially the closeness of their collaboration. To me, their playing, while yielding nothing technically, stands apart from the star, beautifully-machined treatment. I imagine – totally without experience, of course – theirs is what Mittel-Europa music-making is like: the close collaboration of two minds to yield something individual; a sense of superior music-making among friends. I value this quality in them primus inter pares. Kapp has called their interaction "telepathic," and I don't disagree.

Chinese cooks and gourmands concern themselves with what they term "the true taste." Tenenbaum and Kapp achieve the Brahmsian flavor from the get-go. It's a matter of forward motion. The ship, to recall the nautical analogy, leaves the harbor and soon plows through the open sea. It begins with the opening measures of the first sonata and continues through all the rest. Any successful account has to bring that to the table. Indeed, I don't care for Mutter and Weissenberg's versions for exactly that reason: they don't move in the right way. To a great extent, this quality is driven by the pianist, who nevertheless must not appear to dominate. Most of the motion in Brahms comes from the lower notes, producing an oceanic "roll." If the pianist gives you the ocean, the violinist gives you the birds soaring above it, physically free but contextually bound. That duality creates the primal psychic tension of these works. However, the personal is what makes this reading. Even if you didn't know the circumstances of the recording, what strikes you most is a retrospection, a looking back with all the experience and wisdom of life, a mood one certainly finds in Brahms, though not necessarily the dominant one. The first sonata's opening movement, for example, can be played as a triumphant celebration of nature, among other things. With Tenenbaum and Kapp, the triumph, mostly over oneself, is hard-won. I've heard the second sonata more warmly played, but also more superficially. Here, violinist and pianist meld into one entity, as they trade phrases seamlessly. They linger more over paragraphs and moments, finding something you haven't heard in the music before. I have no idea how conscious all this is, since Kapp, at any rate, confesses that he just learned these pieces, and Tenenbaum never sounds as if she dictates anything. I also note a reticence – or, better, a modesty – in their accounts. They talk of deep matters, but at the same time push the music rather than themselves forward, without inflation or a compulsion to "sell." For some, this may count against them, particularly in the third sonata, which Heifetz and Kapell, for example, almost turn into Brahms' "Kreutzer." As I say, I like the latter approach, but over many listenings, Kapp and Tenenbaum speak to me – to me, rather than to a great hall of listeners – more. Their restraint in the third sonata makes the outbursts in the work all the more telling. In all, I consider this one of the outstanding CDs of the year.

In weeks to come, I'm going to review more Kapp, since ESS.A.Y has just released a great chunk of his recordings. All of them have something to recommend them, but I will concentrate on particular favorites.

Copyright © 2006, Steve Schwartz