Sept 2, 2007

Well here it goes, my very first blog posting. It was suggested to me that people might be interested in reading my thoughts on music and life … well who knows? (Music, I know about. Life on the other hand… but that goes in a separate blog I think…) The whole thing feels alternately self-important and like I’m letting the world read my diary. But what’s on my mind tonight is that I’ve spent the last week or so completely immersed in Brahms. (What a place to be!) In preparing to perform all three of the Brahms violin sonatas in a few weeks, I’ve been noticing how much context, the big picture, affects the smallest interpretive decision. And how that context becomes even more important when one performs an entire program of works by the same composer… and perhaps even more so when that entire program represents a composer’s complete output for one instrumental pairing. The three sonatas take on strikingly different profiles when surveyed as a group. The D Minor is clearly the most obvious of the three in terms of character – the most visceral, most virtuosic, the most dependent on the instruments themselves and the players themselves to make its point. The most aggressive and gritty… The G Major, green and verdant, (all the sonatas were composed in the summer months, but the G Major sounds most like summer) lush yet delicate, with wonderfully outward surges of intimacy, gentle yet pouring with substance…. in a word, dichotomy.

And that brings me to the A Major. Such a curious piece it is. Known as being the easiest of the three sonatas to play, it is often played by students and younger musicians at a time when they are not fully enough versed in style to hear some very striking characteristics. The first movement indulges in more rhythmic games than perhaps any other movement I know (save perhaps the first movement of the C Minor Piano Trio). Five bar phrases abound, and Brahms seems to explore every possible combination of hemiola over those 15 beats. Furthermore, this sonata has really no slow movement. The Andante tranquillo, normally played in a very luxurious four beats in a measure, is actually written in 2. If one can be brave enough to actually play it as an Andante in 2 (at least as an illuminatory exercise!) , one begins to become aware of how much things need to be released, rather than sustained, lilting rather than passionate. It is a prime example of Brahms’ love of antiquity, and could in fact be considered neo-Baroque.

Two movements stand out as being not particularly of the chamber music genre at all. The writing in the slow movement of the D Minor, the virility and throatiness of the violin’s opening statement, the simplicity of the form, and the lack of traditional conversational chamber music style make this movement feel like the slow movement of a violin concerto. The piano writing is completely orchestral both in sound concept and in role. I also find this movement the most unabashedly romantic. On the other hand, the final movement of the G Major sonata is perhaps the hardest movement of all to make work musically – so much sotto voce playing, so much innig and inner emotionality – so not obvious, and so very characteristic of Brahms in a final movement of a major work. This movement calls, I think, for the pianist to be not an orchestral player, but a Lieder pianist. Perhaps I am influenced by the knowledge that the main thematic material comes from Brahms’ own Regenlied (Rain Song); but the writing undeniably calls for the delicate touch and subtle shaping and phrasing of one steeped in the tradition of German Lieder.

I am fond of saying when I give pre-concert talks about Brahms that he is my favorite composer. (After having lived 33 years without one, stumbling upon my favorite feels truly monumental!) What a delight it is to immerse myself so fully in such a rich and varied cross section of some of his best chamber music…. (COME TO THE CONCERT!!!!!!)

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Lura Johnson