Back with Brahms and Overton at the Barge

This weekend: Johnny Gandelsman and I play the three violin sonatas of Johannes Brahms at Bargemusic.  

Saturday, June 25 at 8 

Sunday, June 26 at 4  

To round out the program I’m reprising Hall Overton’s rare Piano Sonata.

The three violin sonatas of Johannes Brahms have been in constant circulation since their premieres in the late nineteenth century. It is an honor to get another opportunity to work on this immortal music.

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’s a wonderful musician who really understands the language of 19th century chamber music. We first tried out the Brahms together about five years ago.

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 several important sonata forms including the First Piano Concerto and the Third Symphony. In 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 rarified beauty.

Adagio– Più andante – Adagio. Horn fifths in the piano suggest Beethoven, although 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.

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 can be played with too much intensity; it’s better to just let it roll through, although the dark diminished chords must have some menace. Johnny suggests that an upright piano — like the pianos usually seen in photos of Brahms — would be just fine for the casual intimacies of Op. 100.

No. 3 in D minor, Op. 108

Allegro. Direct and passionate, the third is the “hit” of the violin sonatas. 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 not to play his adagios too slowly.

Un poco presto e con sentimento. F-sharp minor flickers past in a short movement reminiscent of some of the solo piano Intermezzi.

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 is a wonderful read. Swafford mentions a few times that Brahms was a lousy person to play chamber music with. Brahms stared at the page, playing his own way, ignoring the the other musicians. Interesting to know, especially since for many he is the greatest composer of chamber music.