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CD Review

Johannes Brahms

Works for Viola

  • Geistliches Wiegenlied, Op. 91 #2 *
  • Sonata in F minor, Op. 120 #1
  • Gestillte Sehnsucht, Op. 91 #1 *
  • Sonata in E Flat Major, Op. 120 #2
Paul Silverthorne, viola
Julian Jacobson, piano
* Sarah Walker, mezzo-soprano
Meridian CDE 84190 55:25
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Summary for the Busy Executive: Gorgeous.

It took me a long time to "get" Brahms. The idiom itself held no attraction for me, and the formal games he played seemed beside the point – in other words, an "intellectual" (in its bad sense) composer of the worst sort. In short, I mostly agreed with George Bernard Shaw's famous 1893 criticism:

To me it seems quite obvious that the real Brahms is nothing more than a sentimental voluptuary… He is the most wanton of composers… Only his wantonness is not vicious; it is that of a great baby… rather tiresomely addicted to dressing himself up as Handel or Beethoven and making a prolonged and intolerable noise.

Shaw later handsomely admitted that his judgment of Brahms was his only mistake as a music critic. Since I believe not in mistakes, but in likes and dislikes, I find Shaw's musical judgment equally acute in both of his contradictory conclusions. Clearly, even in the brief excerpt above, he heard the main features of Brahms' music. What eluded him was why the music appealed to anyone other than sentimental voluptuaries corrupted by Victorianism and what made it unique to Brahms. Since likes are important, I admit that I did like certain pieces: the choral motets, Schicksalslied, the two sets of Liebeslieder Waltzes, the Haydn variations, the first piano concerto, the string quintets, the sextet, and the double concerto. The rest of it literally put me to sleep. Part of this had to do with my distaste for most 19th-century Germanic music, Mahler being the great exception. Renaissance music and modern music got my blood racing. Most of the other stuff seemed too predictable. "My" 19th century differed markedly from most people's: Berlioz, Mendelssohn, Grieg, Mussorgsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, Borodin, Tchaikovsky, Debussy, Ravel, and Mahler. At any rate, Brahms became a favorite in a sudden flash. I wish I could say one of the masterworks cleaned out my ears, but really minor work led me to the rest of the majors.

Even so, the appeal of certain items in Brahms' catalogue escapes me. Brahms, as we know, wrote the sonatas on this CD originally for clarinet. He had actually retired from composing when the artistry of the clarinettist Richard Mühlfeld inspired him to these two sonatas, and the clarinet quintet and trio. Never one to miss a business opportunity, Brahms also arranged the sonatas for viola, and I first heard them in this form. I may say that I had never heard any performance of the sonatas that convinced me of anything other than Brahms should have stayed retired. I've heard the finest clarinettists in the world (including my favorite, David Shifrin) tackle them. The best I could say is that it wasn't terrible. I wanted to like these works, and it galled me that I didn't.

So I'm not clear on why I acquired this CD. Undoubtedly it had much to do with violist Paul Silverthorne, who had turned in a fantastic account of the Rózsa viola concerto (Koch 3-7304). I wrote then:

Paul Silverthorne, principal violist of the London Symphony and the London Sinfonietta, stands out as one of the best I've ever heard, recalling and even effacing the memory of such greats as Doktor, Benyamini, and Primrose. The tone is rich and the playing supremely dramatic and suggests a great cellist rather than another violist. Most violists simply don't take the spotlight like this.

The first sonata comes alive with a Sturm und Drang F minor, full of themes with the same family look as the Four Serious Songs. Silverthorne and his accompanist, Jacobson, give dark, richly passionate accounts. Again, Silverthorne's tone sounds more like a cello. There's blood in the playing, unlike the "just-there" one often gets with violists. The collaboration between soloist and accompanist is so well judged that it becomes a contest of equals, even though, without such adjustments, a piano drowns out a viola. Here, the partners play with an air of easy power. The last two movements to me present the greatest interpretive challenges of the work. The slow movement Brahms loads with his beloved middle and low sonorities. Silverthorne and Jacobson manage to make it through without getting mired in the murk. The last movement, where a fleet vitality breaks into outright exaltation. Violist and pianist find the requisite lightness and dig deep into themselves for the high moments. Nothing gets trivialized or overblown.

I find the second sonata even tougher, particularly the first movement, whose opening theme skitters dangerously close to salon superficiality and predictability. Silverthorne achieves such a freshness in his phrasing, he sounds at times like he's making up the music on the spot. After another powerful scherzo comes the finale – one of those Brahms movements of wildflower charm which nevertheless contains deeper, elusive strata as well, like the second movement of the violin concerto. Silverthorne and Jacobson hit the emotional bulls-eye here – all the charm and all the depths – a magnificent performance.

The Two Songs for Alto and Viola, Op. 91, I knew from the Janet Baker, Cecil Aronowitz, and André Previn EMI recording. It's hard to compete with. Janet Baker counts as one of my all-time favorite singers of anything. I can pay Sarah Walker no higher compliment than to say in tone and phrasing, she's very much like Baker. The songs themselves are ravishing, among Brahms' finest. The second fashions fragments of the old carol "Joseph lieber, Joseph mein" into a viola rhapsody, and Brahms comes up with a melody even more beautiful for the voice. My one quibble comes here with the balance among the performers. Walker is at times too far forward in the texture and covers her partners. In short, I miss the give-and-take of chamber music. Whether this is Walker's fault or the engineer's, I have no idea.

The sound is fine. Sometimes you really do need a great performance. This one opened up the sonatas to me. Highly recommended.

Copyright © 2000, Steve Schwartz