Musings on the Brahms Violin Sonata Cycle

May 8, 2017

When classical musicians are asked for the name of their favorite composer, more of them offer the name “Johannes Brahms” than any other. I’m fond of a quote by Brahms biographer Jan Swafford which posits that Brahms’s appeal stems from his embrace in his writing of “the counterpoint of Bach, the architecture of Beethoven, and the fantasy of Robert Schumann.” And yet, Swafford points out, Brahms does not sound like those three great composers blended together. Instead the music sounds uniquely and singularly Brahms.

In preparing once again to perform all three violin sonatas on one program, 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.

Brahms did most of the creative work of composing during the warm summer months spent in idyllic European locales. He saved the rigor of editing, copying, and arranging premieres for the colder months in Vienna. In September 2015 I began an association with the International Johannes Brahms Competition in Pörtschach, Austria, a tiny village paradise in the southern Austrian Alps. Brahms wrote the first sonata, the G Major, in this village and I enjoyed the miraculous honor and pleasure of practicing, daily, in the very house where he penciled that work. This connection makes me feel even closer to this music, were that possible.

The sonatas take on strikingly different profiles when surveyed as a group. The third, written in D Minor, is the most obvious of the three in terms of character – the most visceral, most virtuosic, most aggressive and gritty, and the most dependent on the instruments and the players themselves to make its point. The G Major, green and verdant, (all the sonatas were composed in summer months, but the G Major sounds most like summer), lush yet delicate, imbued with subtle nuance but with outward surges of intimacy – in a word, dichotomy.

And then there is the curiosity of the A Major sonata, whose first movement indulges in more rhythmic games than perhaps any other Brahms movement I know (save perhaps the first movement of the C Minor Piano Trio). Five bar phrases abound, and Brahms seems eager to explore every possible combination of hemiola over those 15 beats. Furthermore, this sonata has really no slow movement. The Andante tranquillois normally played in a very luxurious four beats in a measure. If one can be brave enough to actually play it as an Andante in 2 as it is written, one gains awareness 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 form, and 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 understand 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 of one steeped in the tradition of German Art Song.

It is a unique experience to hear these three sonatas as a set, to be able to appreciate not how similar they are, but how very different.

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Lura Johnson