WORKS: Viola Sonatas, Op. 120/1 & 2; Two Songs, Op. 91
PERFORMER: Veronika Hagen (viola), Paul Gulda (piano), Iris Vermillion (contralto)
CATALOGUE NO: 453 421-2
Brahms’s violin and viola sonatas have fared well on disc – their autumnal lyricism seems to elicit the sympathies and expertise of performers and sound engineers alike – and these exemplary recordings add to the number of fine accounts already available. The works belong to Brahms’s maturity, matching a mastery of form with a melodic grace. These two sonatas for viola show the composer’s perennial fascination with the middle register: they were originally written for Richard Mühlfeld, principal clarinettist in Hans von Bülow’s orchestra. This origin is reflected in the pure, open sounds of Veronika Hagen’s viola playing, especially in slow movements. Elsewhere, the duo’s polish and assurance almost mask the formal intricacies of Brahms’s writing – in the complex contrapuntal passages in the first movement of the E flat sonata, for example. The disc closes with the two Songs for Contralto, Viola and Piano, Op. 91, which are imbued with a similar mellow richness – here, they are if anything too languorous.
The violin sonatas are less technically constrained but no less warmly lyrical, and Mullova and Anderszewski give characterful and fresh performances. In particular, where the A major sonata evokes the human voice in its allusions to songs, Mullova’s playing summons up a corresponding vocal quality.
In all these sonatas, Brahms was keen to establish an equivalence in status between the instruments, apportioning the thematic material accordingly, so it is appropriate that on both discs the partnerships are so well matched, with a mutual empathy that animates the music’s intimate expressiveness. William Humphreys-Jones