Brahms: Viola Sonatas in F minor & E flat; Trio in A minor

COMPOSERS: Brahms
LABELS: Hyperion
ALBUM TITLE: Brahms
WORKS: Viola Sonatas in F minor & E flat; Trio in A minor
PERFORMER: Lawrence Power (viola), Tim Hugh (cello), Simon Crawford-Phillips (piano)
CATALOGUE NO: CDA 67584
Was it pity for viola players that induced Brahms to arrange his two Clarinet Sonatas and Clarinet Trio for the Cinderella of the string section? Or was it genuine artistic necessity? It’s hard to say. The viola can offer something special rather than just different – especially in the First Sonata and the Trio. The exquisitely slow dying fall of the slow movement melody of Sonata No. 1 becomes more confidential on the viola. And in many parts of the Trio the viola’s instrumental dialogue with the cello is strikingly effective: as the two instruments often converse on the same material, the closeness in tone makes exchanges subtler, more nuanced. The end of the Trio’s first movement, with viola and cello semiquavers intertwining quietly, has a smoky mysterious quality the clarinet version misses. But it does make the music more sombre, muted, far less liquid and agile in effect – disappointing in parts of the First Sonata and almost throughout the Second. And there are one or two passages where even the impressive Lawrence Power has difficulty making the viola speak distinctly and elegantly through Brahms’s rich piano textures,despite sensitive assistance from the Hyperion recording.

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On the whole Power makes a convincing case for these as arrangements – more so than other recommended versions. His tone is strong, never whiny (as violas can be), but capable of some variety in colour and expression. Power’s musical relationship with Simon-Crawford-Phillips, and especially with Tim Hugh in the Trio, gives a lot of pleasure. Still, a guarded recommendation. Stephen Johnson