Over the years I have come to enjoy historically informed performances
thoroughly. More than that, I now expect a degree of period perspective
from any performance I attend, or new recording I hear, of Baroque
and Classical repertoire. I do get nervous, though, when period
performance practice and period instruments are employed in Romantic
repertoire. I cringe at the thought of Romantic masterpieces defaced
by frantic tempi, anaemic strings, and the death rattle of keyboards
unable to cope with the virtuosic demands of the 19th
The flowing eloquence of the performances on this
disc immediately banished any such fears. Ilia Korol and Natalia
Grigorieva give us the best that historically informed performance
can bring to Brahms’ sonatas for violin and piano.
Both Korol and Grigorieva are members of moderntimes_1800,
a young Austrian period instrument ensemble that configures
itself in various shapes from chamber orchestra to chamber ensemble.
This disc is released under moderntimes_1800’s auspices.
Grigorieva plays a Streicher fortepiano built in
1870. The instrument is well chosen for two reasons. Firstly,
it is historically apposite. We know that Brahms had an 1868
Streicher, a gift from the makers, in his flat in Vienna. We
also know that he played frequently the 1880 Streicher instrument
owned by his Viennese friends, Richard
and Maria Fellinger. It was on their instrument that Brahms
made his only recording
More importantly, though, Grigorieva’s instrument simply sounds lovely.
It has a mellow, fruity base register and plenty of warm shine
in the upper reaches of its range. Overall, the instrument’s
sound is rounder than you may expect from a fortepiano, but
without the ringing steel of a modern concert grand. The tolling
of the piano’s bell-like chords around the 6 minute mark in
the first movement of the first sonata has a subtle bloom I
have not marked elsewhere, and the runs that close the first
movement of the second sonata have a wonderfully bucolic quality,
like the burbling of a brook.
Korol’s instrument is not from Brahms’ time – he
plays a 1999 Cai von Steitencron violin – but it is built in
the style of a Cremona violin, strung with gut, and built to
incorporate the customary “modernisations” of neck, bass-bar,
finger board and bridge of Brahms’ era. These “modernisations”
undoubtedly assist Korol’s projection. He plays with the sweetest
tone I have heard from gut strings and, far from eschewing vibrato,
he employs it liberally along with fine dynamic contrasts to
colour Brahms’ espressivo writing, giving the violin's long
legato lines a naturally breathing, song-like quality.
As a general comment, each of these sonatas is
spun with singing lyricism in genuine partnership between keyboard
and bow. The first sonata showcases this balance in its flowing
first movement. The second movement will surprise: it is taken
at a daringly slow tempo, acquiring a decadent languor that
one does not usually associate with Brahms. The piano’s almost rhapsodic introduction to this movement has a wonderful
expressive freedom under Grigorieva’s fingers. The third movement is quietly enigmatic, rather than archly
mysterious. Korol's thoughtful phrasing and subtle shading here
are a delight.
The second sonata has the warm glow of the afternoon
sun. Again it is the second movement that is most impressive,
as Korol and Grigorieva capture the subtle shifts in mood admirably.
The finale is spacious and nuanced too, with wonderful dialogue
The performance of the third sonata is controversial
in its understatement. Korol’s hairpin crescendos and decrescendos
in the long opening violin phrase may seem fussy to some listeners,
but for me his ebbing expression sets up a first movement of
dancing shadows. There is drama here, but it is subtle rather
than overt, as it is with Oistrakh (EMI) or even Grumiaux (Philips).
The second movement has warmth and limpid beauty, but mystery
too, and Korol’s double stopping – as ever on this disc – is
clean and beautifully balanced. The third movement is quirky,
and gives way to a finale of measured tempi and enigmatic light
This is as good a disc of these sonatas as any
to have appeared in recent years, from any performance tradition.
Korol and Grigorieva take a broadly similar approach to Renaud
Capuçon and Nicholas Angelich in their excellent recordings
on Virgin, but there is enough difference in expressive detail,
not to mention instrumental timbre, to warrant purchasing both.
As my comments thus far should make clear, this recording offers
thoughtful music making from equal partners, rather than virtuoso
display, and is none the worse for that.
The liner notes are helpful, despite the odd typographical
error, and the immediate sound captured in the warm, resonant
acoustic of Vienna’s Beethovensaal serves the performances well.
While Korol and Grigorieva may not be a first choice recommendation
in this wonderful music, their performances are beautifully
and thoughtfully presented and this disc deserves a recommendation
as a MusicWeb International Recording of the Month.