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ClassicsOnline Home » BRAHMS: Violin Sonatas Nos. 1-3, Opp. 78, 100 and 108
By Mark Lehman
The Absolute Sound
"These passionate, magisterial, gorgeously melodic sonatas are a pinnacle of Brahms' maturity. Right from the beginning they are indelible: Who can ever forget the warmly lilting tune that begins the First Sonata? (I remember exactly when and where I first heard it three decades ago.) They inspire Kaler and Peskanov, both absolute masters of their instruments, to such thoughtful , sweet toned, expressively nuanced playing, ideally balanced to bring out this music's subtle contrapuntal interplay, that it can only be described as exalted. Naxos' recording offers a studio rather than a recital hall perspective, but it never feels unduly close. Timbres are rich and natural, nicely focused with neither edge nor blurring. The result is wonderfully involving, and a perfect response to Brahms' famous injunction about how to play his music: "Play it however you like. But make it beautiful."
By Scott Cantrell
The Dallas Morning News
"The Brahms...violin sonatas represent the composer at his finest, the music a noble balance of passion and control. And the new Naxos recording of the sonatas, by violinist Ilya Kaler and pianist Alexander Peskanov, goes right to the top of the pile. These are emphatically not sonatas for violin with piano accompaniment. At any given moment, the most important material is as likely to be presented by the piano as by the violin. These Russian musicians are a real partnership, trading the spotlight back and forth. This is warm, deeply felt music-making, Brahms' lines eloquently formed and propelled. The warm, true sonics are ideal."
Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)
Sonatas for violin and piano
Johannes Brahms was born in Hamburg in 1833, the son of a
double-bass player and his much older wife, a seamstress His childhood was
spent in relative poverty, and his early studies in music, for which he showed
a natural aptitude, developed his talent to such an extent that there was talk
of his touring as a prodigy at the age of eleven. It was Eduard Marxsen who
gave him a grounding in the technical basis of composition, while the boy
helped his family by playing the piano to entertain guests in summer inns
outside the city, a more respectable and better rewarded occupation than he was
later to imply.
In 1851 Brahms met the emigre Hungarian violinist Remenyi,
who introduced him to Hungarian dance music that had a later influence on his
work. Two years later he set out in his company on his first concert tour.
Their journey took them, on the recommendation of the Hungarian violinist
Joachim, to Weimar, where Franz Liszt held court and might have been expected
to show particular favour to a fellow-countryman. Remenyi profited from the
visit, but Brahms, with a lack of tact that was later accentuated, failed to
impress the Master. Later in the year, however, he met the Schumanns, through Joachim's
agency. The meeting was a fruitful one.
In 1850 Schumann had taken up the offer of the position
of municipal director of music in Dtisseldorf, the first official appointment
of his career and the last.
Now in the music of Brahms he detected a promise of greatness
and published his views in the journal he had once edited, the Neue Zeitschrijt
fur Musik, declaring Brahms the long-awaited successor to Beethoven. In the
following year Schumann, who had long suffered from intermittent periods of
intense depression, attempted suicide. His final years, until his death in 1856,
were to be spent in au asylum, while Brahms rallied to the support of
Schumann's wife, the gifted pianist Clara Schumann, and her young family, remaining
a firm friend until her death in 1896, shortly before his own in the following
Brahms had always hoped that sooner or later he would be
able to return in triumph to a position of distinction in the musical life of Hamburg.
This ambition was never fulfilled. Instead he settled in Vienna, intermittently
from 1863 and definitively in 1869, establishing himself there and seeming to
many to fulfil Schumann's early prophecy. In him his supporters, including,
above all, the distinguished critic and writer Eduard Hanslick, saw a true
successor to Beethoven and a champion of music untrammeled by extra-musical
associations, of "pure" music, as opposed to the "Music of the
Future" promoted by Wagner and Liszt, a path to which Joachim and Brahms
both later publicly expressed their opposition.
Brahms made a significant contribution to chamber music
repertoire. His first attempts were made in the early 1850s and are now lost,
but in 1853 he wrote a movement for the composite violin sonata by Schumann and
his pupil Albert Oietrich intended for Joachim. It was not until 1879 that he
completed, to his satisfaction, his first violin sonata, during a summer
holiday at Portschach on the Worthersee. It had become customary for Brahms to
spend his summers in the countryside, and to devote himself largely to composition.
For three summers, from 1977, he stayed at Portschach. In 1878 he completed his
Violin Concerto, in consultation with Joachim, and started work on the Violin
Sonata in G major, Opus 78. The first movement, in which the piano, as
always in these sonatas, is at least an equal partner, allows the violin to
introduce the main theme, with its gentle lilt, over piano chords. A transition
soon brings those cross-rhythms that are typical of the composer. The violin
moves to the second subject, joined by the piano, the first theme re-appearing
with a plucked violin accompaniment, a suggested repetition of the exposition
that in fact leads to a central development section. The recapitulation ends in
a coda that recalls the principal elements of the main theme. The Adagio, opened
by the piano, joined by the violin in the main theme, moves from E flat major
to the minor in a solemn memory of the rhythmic figure that had started the
first movement. The first theme returns in more expansive form, followed by the
second, now more gently optimistic, as it leads to the final return of the principal
theme. The last movement, with its immediate reference to the opening of the
whole work, brings recollection of the composer's setting of the nostalgic poem
Regenlied (Rain Song) by Klaus Groth, and of the following setting, Nachklang
(Reminiscence). There is a return to the theme of the Adagio, itself
a possible reference to Schumann's late Violin Concerto, now developed
before the return of the original key and a conclusion that recalls what has passed.
Brahms' Violin Sonata No.2 in A major, Opus 100,
was completed during the summer of 1886, while the composer was on holiday by Lake
Thun, in Switzerland, and was performed in Vienna in December of the same
year. There is a perceived connection with two songs written in the same summer,
Wie Melodien (As melodies) and Immer leiser wird mein Schlummer
(Ever gentle is my sleep), poems by Klaus Groth and Hermann Lingg, the first in
the second subject of the first movement, and the second in the Finale.
Like its predecessor, the sonata is generally lyrical in mood. The first
subject of the Allegro amabile, introduced by the piano, is taken up by
the violin and is contrasted with a second subject of greater intensity. The
second movement alternates between the serenity of the Andante and the D
minor Vivace that serves as a Scherzo, ever faster at each appearance.
The Finale is unusual in its relatively restrained speed. The rich
melody of the opening gives way to an arpeggiated passage, a first episode that
leads back to the principal theme in a new guise. The following episode is more
dramatic, while the main theme returns almost hesitantly, followed by elements of
the first episode and a coda that uses the same melody.
The Sonata No.3 in D minor, Opus 108, followed in
1888, again completed during a summer spent at Lake Thun, and was dedicated to
the pianist and conductor Hans von Btilow. The first movement opens with a
violin theme that is extended in a mood of intensity only suggested in the
first bars. The piano introduces the F major second theme and this leads to a
central development, over a repeated pedal-point. The Adagio provides a
rich melodic outline for the violin, its D major replaced by F sharp minor for
the following scherzo movement, with its key lowered a semitone for a
contrasting section The final Presto agitato provides a perfect balance
with the first movement, its passionate first theme contrasted with a more
tranquil second, providing altogether a direct counterpart structurally and
emotionally to the opening Allegro.
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BRAHMS: Violin Sonatas Nos. 1-3, Opp. 78, 100 and ...