Brahms: Sonatas Nos. 1-3 for Violin and Piano. Mark Fewer, violin; Peter Longworth, piano. Azica. $16.99.
Brahms: Symphony No. 4; Geistliches Lied, Op. 30; Fest- und Gedenksprüche, Op. 109; Beethoven: Coriolan Overture; G. Gabrieli: Sanctus and Benedictus a 12; Schütz: Saul, Saul, was verfolgst du mich?; Bach: Nach dir, Herr, verlanget mich, BWV 150—Meine Augen sehen stets zu dem Herrn; Meine Tage in den Leiden. Monteverdi Choir and Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique conducted by John Eliot Gardiner. SDG. $18.99.
Most listeners think of Brahms primarily as a symphonist and composer for the piano – with his two piano concertos straddling the line between traditional concerto and symphony. In fact, although Brahms was not a particularly prolific composer, he wrote works in a wide variety of forms, and some of those heard less often are quite as distinguished as his better-known pieces. His three sonatas for violin and piano are examples. Although scarcely unknown to musicians, they are not familiar to most casual listeners, even though they are fine music in themselves and also provide considerable insight into Brahms’ handling of form. Mark Fewer and Peter Longworth give outstanding performances of all three sonatas, each of which is quite different from the others. The first, in G (Op. 78), dates to 1878-79 and is strongly and rather surprisingly focused on the violin – surprisingly because Brahms was a pianist and tended to give the piano priority in much of his chamber music. This is a large-scale sonata, very melodic, which Fewer and Longworth handle with excellent partnership and a strongly unified approach to the material. The less-expansive second sonata, in A (Op. 100), dates to 1886 and balances the performers much more evenly. Here Fewer and Longworth create so natural an ebb and flow that they seem to have intuitive communication with each other – making their handoffs from instrument to instrument sound completely natural, unforced and elegantly proportioned. Especially interesting here is the sonata’s second movement, in which two Andante tranquillo sections contain a strongly accented Scherzo between them. The performers handle the transitions and contrasts to excellent effect. And in the final sonata, in D minor (Op. 108), Fewer and Longworth produce a work infused with both power and lyricism. Written only a year after the second sonata, this four-movement work contrasts strongly with its predecessor and features an especially difficult piano part – which Longworth plays with captivating skill, never downplaying its complexity but never being overwhelmed by it either. This CD provides considerable insight into a side of Brahms with which many listeners are likely to be less than intimately familiar.
Another side of the composer that most listeners do not know well is his vocal music (except perhaps for the German Requiem). Brahms never wrote an opera, but he did create a number of vocal works, and most of them are totally neglected in concerts and on recordings. John Eliot Gardiner believes that Brahms’ vocal music provides insights into his symphonic style – and that hearing works by Brahms’ predecessors in juxtaposition with his symphonies can also show how Brahms was influenced by, and went beyond, the works of earlier composers. Therefore, at concerts in October 2008 – which were recorded and are now available on CD – Gardiner performed a number of pieces that he felt would shed light on Brahms’ Symphony No. 4, which he programmed at the end of the concert and which appears last on the CD. In some ways, this is an over-intellectual exercise: the Fourth is the Brahms symphony most influenced by Baroque models, especially the works of Bach, but that influence will not be immediately apparent to most people who hear the Bach, Giovanni Gabrieli, and Schütz works recorded here. In other ways, Gardiner’s approach is perhaps over-obvious: there has never been any question of the extent to which Brahms heard the footsteps of Beethoven behind him, and the Coriolan Overture is not directly related to Brahms’ Fourth. As for Brahms’ vocal music, here too the interrelationship of it with the symphony is not immediately apparent – and in fact Fest- und Gedenksprüche was written four years later than the symphony. But in a sense, all of these what-influenced-what discussions are unimportant, because taken simply as a concert (or a 71-minute CD), the Gardiner disc is fascinating. Listeners simply do not hear Brahms in a context like this most of the time, and even if there is no pinpoint accuracy of influence between the symphony and the other works, the disc as a whole creates a very different listening experience from the one that listeners will likely expect. The vocal music is especially well performed and quite beautiful. The instrumental material is less successful, though, primarily because Gardiner is inclined to rush things: the Coriolan Overture is too quick to seem to be marching inexorably toward tragedy, and in Brahms’ Fourth, the coda to the first movement and the main section of the Allegro giocoso simply need more time to breathe. It is truly unfortunate that Gardiner’s really creative approach to creating this concert and CD is not capped by a Brahms Fourth whose excellence would provide the best possible argument for Gardiner’s musicological analysis. The disc nevertheless gets a top rating, because the approach is so creative and gives listeners an opportunity to hear a Brahms symphony in a context in which it very rarely appears.