Brahms • Mendelssohn • Schumann
Emma Johnson says of Brahms’s two late Sonatas that she’s ‘always felt it important not to rush into recording them’; and both her booklet notes and her performances show how deeply she’s thought about these carefully wrought works. In particular, Brahms’s elusive pronouncements about tempo variation have encouraged her into a good deal of rhythmic elasticity, sounding mostly idiomatic and spontaneous but just occasionally forced and artificial. John Lenehan matches Johnson’s rhythmic inflections, but doesn’t always succeed in finding sonorities and phrasing on a par with her inward quiet playing and gently articulated mezzo-staccatos. Maybe that’s the fault of the somewhat closed-in recording, which gives the bass end of the piano a gruff opacity. Overall, for all their considerable merits, Johnson and Lenehan don’t quite emulate the sensitive, almost telepathic partnership of Martin Fröst and Roland Pöntinen on BIS.
An obvious coupling is the Phantasiestücke by Brahms’s mentor Schumann. These lack some of the energy and momentum that they need. Johnson too often pulls her punches on passages of sustained forte, and ignores the attacca markings between movements. The generous playing time also accommodates the rarely heard Sonata by the teenage Mendelssohn, with a blend of Romantic warmth and Classical poise. The lion’s share of bravura writing oddly falls to the piano part, clearly relished by Lenehan. But Johnson’s attempts to right this balance go well beyond ornamentation, and include some wholesale rewriting which – unlike her thoughtful treatment of the Brahms – surely distorts the composer’s intentions.