Notebook: op. 78, 100, 108

The three violin sonatas of Johannes Brahms have been in constant circulation since their premieres in the late nineteenth century. It has been a delightful challenge to prepare them for performance with Johnny Gandelsman at Bargemusic this Friday and Saturday.

I first played with Johnny back when I was Mark Morris’s music director; more recently he’s been in Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble and helped found the string quartet Brooklyn Rider. He knows Brahms much better than me, of course, but is a wonderful coach.

No. 1 G major, op. 78

Vivace ma non troppo. 6/4 isn’t associated with Bach, Handel, Mozart, Haydn, or Beethoven. Brahms reached back to the pre-Baroque era to find the big six, which he appropriated for many important sonata forms, including the First Piano Concerto, the Third Symphony, and op. 78. He carves up the six into twos, threes, and fours, occasionally even making nines along the way. This swinging base supports a dotted melody of the most rarified beauty.

Adagio– Più andante – Adagio. Horn fifths in the piano suggest Beethoven, but then the violin’s song is a rather dark and mysterious nachtmusik. Contemporary scholars now believe the Più andante funeral march was a direct response to the death of young Felix Schumann, son of Robert and Clara, named for Mendelssohn, and author of three poems Brahms set as lieder in op. 63 and op. 86.

Allegro molto moderato. The melody and “raindrop” accompaniment for this spacious rondo in minor come from Brahms’s op. 53 songs "Regenlied" and "Nachklang." The first contrasting theme is a bit gypsy, the second quotes and then transfigures the horn melody from the Adagio. Towards the end the sun comes out at last and Brahms’s most perfect violin sonata ends in radiant major.

Since it is our favorite, Johnny and I have decided to close the recital with op. 78.

No. 2 in A major, op. 100

Allegro Amabile. What is this, a waltz? Not exactly, but it must lilt somehow. The odd phrase lengths and intertwining parts make this hard to parse. My own interpretation is that these melodies reflect the way Brahms was with women: he loved their beauty but needed to keep his distance. Aleksandar Madžar intriguingly suggests that the temperament should be more like Richard Strauss than Beethoven. In the development section Brahms nearly quotes Chopin, a rare event.

Andante tranquillo – Vivace – Andante – Vivace di più – Andante – Vivace. Two forms of rustic behavior: looking at the sky, then a country dance. The violin pizzicatos are effective, especially with Johnny’s kind of natural swing.

Allegretto grazioso (quasi andante). Again, a pretty tune is rendered diffuse by odd phrase lengths and surprise hand-offs between violin and piano. This movement is often played with too much intensity; it’s better to just let it roll through, although the dark diminished chords must have some menace. Brahms was fascinated by the plagal cadence: both op. 78 and op. 100 end with a big IV – I “Amen.”

Brahms specified that op. 100 was a sonata for piano and violin, not violin and piano. I’m using that as grounds for a improvising a little prelude before beginning and then transitioning between movements. They used to do that all the time; certainly Brahms did it. It’s kind of shocking now, but why not try it? Especially at the start of a long program: let’s get settled in, make sure the piano works, tune up everyone’s ears, and so forth. It’s honestly much easier to start that first movement after exploring A major a bit.

(The chapter “A Suitable Prelude” in After the Golden Age: Romantic Pianism and Modern Performance by Kenneth Hamilton inspired me to improvise on a Brahms concert. The whole book is highly recommended.)

No. 3 in D minor, Op. 108

Allegro. Direct and passionate, the third Sonata is the “hit” of the three. Although it is the easiest to interpret musically, the piano part is technically the hardest: even Vladimir Horowitz and young Arthur Rubinstein drop some notes on early recordings.

The opening rising fourth in the violin informs the work in ways both obvious and devious: Arnold Schoenberg admired Brahms’s sophistication, calling it the “principle of developing variation.”

Adagio. A perfect, heartfelt song for the violinist. Even at a slow tempo, Brahms can’t stop himself from dividing up his threes into twos, which is one reason I think it is important not to play his adagios too slowly. You always need to feel the hemiolas.

Un poco presto e con sentimento. F-sharp minor flickers past in a short movement reminiscent of some of the solo piano Intermezzi. Aargh! Wish me luck on the hand crossing in the coda.

Presto agitato. Brahms wasn’t always comfortable writing uptempo finales, but here he delivers a proper daredevil tarantella. It’s still Brahms, though, so — just as throughout most of these sonatas — the melodic material is constantly shifted between piano and violin, daring the ear to follow a rich and remarkably contrapuntal texture.

Jan Swafford’s biography of Brahms was a wonderful read. I’ve heard it said by a reputable authority that it is one of the very few truly excellent classical musical biographies suitable for both mainstream readers and professionals. Swafford mentions a few times that Brahms was a lousy person to play chamber music with. He stared at the page, playing his own way, ignoring the the other musicians. Interesting to know, especially since for me (and many others) he is the greatest composer of chamber music.

There must be a hundred recordings of the violin sonatas. I’ve had about ten in rotation the last six months. There’s a big divide between historical and modern performance. In the pre-LP era tempi vary much more, rests are ignored, and they tend to swing harder.

The earliest recordings I could find were from the early thirties. Efrem Zimbalist and Harry Kaufman tracked op. 108 in 1930. A fun listen to be sure; no one today would dare to use so much vibrato and portamento in the slow movement. Paul Kochanski and Arthur Rubinstein also recorded an intense op. 108 in 1932. Although from 1931, Adolf Busch and Rudolf Serkin sound comparatively modern in op. 70 and op. 100.

[Update: On Twitter, Richard Brody alerted me to an astonishing 1926 performance of op. 100 from Toscha Seidel and Harry Kaufman. I'm totally blown away!]

From the early LP era I’ve heard Heifetz/Kapell, Milstein/Horowitz, de Vito/Fischer (and Aprea), Szeryng/Rubinstein.

There’s no such thing as an “ideal” recording, but if I made a playlist of historical versions, it would include:

Op. 78: Gioconda de Vito/Edwin Fischer in 1953. My god, what a violin tone. She sounds like a full orchestra. I’m a Fischer fan as well, although here he is not in great health and misses even more notes than usual. It doesn’t matter; this is a great record. Now I want to hear all of de Vito’s small discography.

Op. 100: Adolf Busch/Rudolf Serkin in 1931. Almost too fast! But intensely exciting all the same. The finale is just right. Busch’s phrases don’t seem to start and stop, they just happen, dissolving in the air.

Op. 108: Nathan Milstein/Vladimir Horowitz in 1950. Of course it is clean, aristocratic and redolent of Old World glamour, but the toughness around the edges is what really makes this work. Maybe Horowitz pushes too hard in in the tarantella, but I like watching him go off the cliff once in a while.

Honorable mention goes to the complete set made by Henryk Szeryng and Arthur Rubinstein. The edits are obvious, some of the ensemble is really ragged (did they even rehearse, I wonder?) and in general the tempos are a bit sleepy. Still, any time Uncle Arthur plays Brahms he always hands out a gentlemanly piano lesson, and Szeryng is a wonderful and natural musician. 

In the modern era, I’ve heard several solid accounts and a few lemons. The one I most want to steer readers away from is Perlman/Ashkenazy, which to me seems surprisingly unengaged and distantly recorded.

The one I like best is the newest, Anthony Marwood and Aleksandar Madžar recorded live at Wigmore Hall in 2010 and 2011. I knew that Marwood was brilliant from collaborations with Thomas Adès, but on this record I'm even more impressed with Madžar, who offers some of the most technically impregnable and musically ravishing playing I’ve heard in chamber music anywhere. A nice inspiration for my own piano practice!