Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Violin Sonata No. 1 in G, Op. 78 (1879) [28:39]
Violin Sonata No. 2 in A, Op. 100 (1886) [22:35]
Violin Sonata No. 3 in D minor, Op. 108 (1888) [22:39]
Scherzo in C minor from ‘F.A.E.’ Sonata; WoO posth. 2 (1853) [6:07]
Simon Fischer (violin)
Raymond Fischer (piano)
rec. August and October 2006, Henry Wood Hall, London
BIDDULPH 80229-2 [79:57]

I’ve never seen Simon Fischer in concert, but I have seen him at a concert. That was at Ida Haendel’s most recent London recital, at the Wigmore Hall, and it was entirely predictable that Fischer, a great pedagogue whose books, and whose writing for The Strad, are well known should want to attend. He has powerful things to say about teaching matters, about Carl Flesch in particular too, and he would be unlikely to spurn the chance to hear Haendel, one of the last of the authentic masters of the instrument, in recital.

The Fischer duo – father and son (I assume – Raymond is the father) – has played the Brahms sonatas in concert a number of times and set down this disc back in 2006, so it’s been quite a long wait for this Biddulph release. The balance is good, and just – at first I thought it favoured the piano slightly but it took me a while to work myself into Simon Fischer’s approach. This I would characterise as precise, elegant, sparing when it comes to matters of vibrato (in the main), and relaxed when it comes to tempo decision making.

What I will take from this disc is the sense of elegance and refinement that these two musicians themselves bring to the music. These are arresting performances because they have clearly been thought through and over at considerable length, but they are ones that sound fresh and unforced. There is no sense of a pedagogic, academic backwater here, rather of a warmly unsentimental approach to Brahms’s sonatas.

It’s clean-limbed playing too, as a listen to Op.108 – I started with my favourite – will show. There are no expressive bulges, no voluptuous tonal reserves, and no throbbing lower strings in the slow movement. The tempo here is relatively conventional and tempo relations are well managed, ensemble too. That slow movement is clement, resigned, but not over emotive. The Fischers seem to want to harmonise the moods here – and the result is the opposite of expansive romantic effusion. The scherzo, often passed over, is a subtle study full of elegant gestures and bow weight changes, and piano chording refinement. The finale is strong and purposeful.

The Sonata in G is amiable and genuinely musical albeit taken at a slow basic tempo, but not one that sags noticeably. The key is rhythmic control, accenting and phrasal security. The tempo for the slow movement is again slow by some standards but I wouldn’t especially draw attention to it; Szymon Goldberg took a similar kind of tempo. The Fischers find the underlying dance patterns to the sonatas, and there’s plenty of aeration in Simon Fischer’s tone in the sonata in A. He increases the depth and variety of vibrato usage in this sonata’s finale. The duo plays the FAE Scherzo imaginatively. It’s not at all the muscular ‘Russian’ approach; rather it has flexibility and a strong concentration on the B section with great elegance and sensitivity. Most duos can’t wait to plough on. Throughout in fact they bring out the fragility, the fugitive sensitivities and warmth that these sonatas embody.

Some may cavil that these are small-scale performances or ones that bring a particular view to Brahms – not that of, say, Oistrakh or Kogan, or Heifetz, or Busch, or Grumiaux, or Goldberg – or whoever one’s historical lodestar may be. I would suggest that these performances are ones that bring a lyrical sensibility to the sonatas, that pay no attention to accepted ‘traditions’ and that have the courage to play with elegance and not pummel with bow weight and digging into the string. It doesn’t necessarily alter one’s allegiances in these works but these performances are to be respected and admired.

Jonathan Woolf