ALBUM TITLE: Brahms: Violin Sonatas Nos 1-3
WORKS: Violin Sonatas Nos 1-3; Scherzo in C minor, Wo0 2; Wiegenlied
PERFORMER: Leonidas Kavakos (violin), Yuja Wang (piano)
CATALOGUE NO: 478 6442
These three recordings offer strikingly different interpretations of Brahms’s Violin Sonatas. At one end of the emotional spectrum, Leonidas Kavakos and Yuja Wang approach the music in a generally understated manner, creating an intimacy that reinforces melodic connections with Brahms’s Lieder. Kavakos opts for a subtle use of vibrato and a relatively limited dynamic range. His sweet tone is matched by Wang who is admirably discreet in the more richly scored writing of the Finale in the Sonata No. 3 in D minor, but also achieves a miraculously delicate touch in the Scherzo sections of the middle movement of No. 2 in A major. With less recourse to tempo fluctuation within movements than in many interpretations, these performances may seem restrained and almost Classical in outlook. Yet this reticence serves to give greater intensity to those few passages, such as the wonderfully noble ending to No. 1 in G major or the fiery conclusion of the Third in D minor, where both players become more expansive in expression.
In contrast, Catherine Manoukian and Gunilla Süssmann are impulsive, offering a no-holds barred Romantic view, with some boldly dramatic gestures and frequent use of rubato. Manoukian has a gorgeously sumptuous sound while Süssmann brings weight and opulence to the piano writing, particularly through emphasising the bass line. The players are especially impressive in the slow movement of No. 1 in G major, the fluidity and warmth of the opening contrasting with an explosive middle section. Equally compelling is their dynamic conception of the outer movements of No. 3 which presents an epic quasi-symphonic narrative between the two instruments. But I’m not so convinced by their rather relentless approach to G major’s finale, which ignores Brahms’s tempo marking of Allegro molto moderato. Here, the fragility and gentleness achieved by Kavakos and Wang seems closer to the music’s spirit.
It would perhaps be too simplistic to place Corey Cerovsek and Paavali Jumppanen somewhere in between these two extremes. Yet in many respects their performances achieve an admirable balance between the Romantic and Classical elements in Brahms’s musical language. Almost all their tempos are well-judged, and any use of rubato seems integral to the musical structure rather than superimposed in a self-conscious manner. Despite one slight lapse in intonation in the finale of the D minor, Cerovsek delivers warm and technically accomplished playing, but Jumppanen steals the show with his superlative control of timbre.
Given her long-term experience as the violinist of the Smetana Trio, it’s no surprise that of all the players featured here Jana Vonáková-Nováková is most alert to the chamber music subtleties of Brahms’s writing. She is particularly good at interacting with the piano and in demarcating moments where she is the soloist or the accompanist. It’s a pity, however, that her pianist is not quite on the same level, offering some rather prosaic phrasing and more puzzlingly some different reading of notes in the first and third movements of No. 2 in G major. The inclusion of the composite FAE Sonata, written jointly by Dietrich, Schumann and Brahms, makes an enterprising alternative to the A major Sonata, but is not sufficiently attractive to warrant a recommendation.