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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Sonata for Viola and Piano No. 1 in F minor, Op. 120 (1894) [22:05]
Sonata for Viola and Piano No. 2 in E-flat major, Op. 120 (1894) [19:52]
Sonata for Cello and Piano in E minor, Op. 38 (1862-65) (Transcribed for viola by Emanuel Vardi) [26:17]
Sonata for Violin and Piano No. 1 in G major, Op. 78 (1879) [27:19]
Sonata for Violin and Piano No. 2 in A major, Op. 100 (1886) [21:14]
Sonata for Violin and Piano No. 3 in D minor, Op. 108 (1888) [22:27]
Emanuel Vardi (viola), Nobu Wakabayashi (violin), Kathron Sturrock (piano)
rec. rec. St. Michael’s Church, Highgate, London, 21-23 August 1991 (CD1), 18-19 July 1991 (CD2)
PORTRAIT CLASSICS PCL2103 [68:55 + 71:43]

A qualified recommendation. Just don’t turn up the volume too high!

This two-disc set is a reissue of separate mid-price CDs on the IMP Classics label, originally released in the early ’nineties. Now they appear as a set and at budget price. They contain the complete Brahms violin and viola sonatas plus a transcription for viola of the first cello sonata.
Of the two discs, I prefer the violin sonatas for a number of reasons. First, I find the autumnal nature of Brahms’ Op. 120 better expressed by the original, clarinet versions that he composed for Richard Mühlfeld. Second, Emanuel Vardi’s performance, while more than just accurate, lacks something in the way of expressiveness and color. He recorded these sonatas very late in his career and that could be the reason. Nevertheless, they are certainly good accounts of these works — at least as far as the two viola sonatas are concerned — and Kathron Sturrock accompanies well. However, the Cello Sonata transcription loses much of the darkness of its character when played on the viola.
Nobu Wakabayashi and Sturrock, on the other hand, are generally very convincing in the violin sonatas — best of all in the D minor work. There is a nice balance between violin and piano, and Wakabayashi has a warm and rich tone. Though something bothers me here that I think has to do more with the recorded sound than the performances. Whenever the sound approaches forte, the violin’s tone becomes harsh, coarse-grained. This is especially noticeable on headphones, less so when listening through speakers. Yet it soon becomes wearing. Setting the volume lower helps, but I would prefer a more distant recording. This is also noticeable in the viola sonatas, but to a lesser degree.
There are many alternatives one could recommend for both the violin and the viola sonatas. For example, for the former Dumay/Pires (DG) are hard to beat, although I haven’t heard the new Znaider/Bronfman recording for RCA that has been getting rave reviews. For the viola sonatas, the recent Lawrence Power/Simon Crawford-Phillips has been highly praised. And there are many other favorites from the past. As I stated above, though, when I want to hear the Op. 120 sonatas I would rather hear the clarinet versions. For those the Fröst/Pöntinen duo on BIS is a real winner. Of course, all of these recommendations come at full price. For a budget issue, this Portrait Classics issue receives a qualified recommendation. Just don’t turn up the volume too high!
Leslie Wright


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