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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
CD 1
Sonata in F minor for clarinet/viola and piano, Op. 120 No. 1 (1895) [22:35]
Violin Sonata in G major, Op. 78 (arr. viola Klengel/Rysanov) (1879) [26:34]
Trio in E flat for horn/viola, violin and piano, Op. 40 (1866) [28:16]
CD 2
Sonata in E flat major, Op. 120 No. 2 (1895) [21:35]
Trio in A minor for clarinet/viola, cello and piano, Op. 114 (1892) [25:29]
Maxim Rysanov (viola); Katya Apekisheva (piano CD 1); Boris Brovtsyn (violin); Jacob Katsnelson (piano CD 2); Kristine Blaumane (cello)
rec. Gnessin College of Music, Moscow - October 2007 (CD1); Slabodkin Center Music Hall, Moscow – January/May 2008. DDD
ONYX 4033 [77:35 + 47:09]

Experience Classicsonline

Obviously intended as a showcase for Maxim Rysanov, whose name appears in bold type, this outstanding pair of discs deserves to be heard as widely as possible – not just by viola players or admirers of Brahms’ chamber music. As a viola player myself, I have no hesitation in describing Rysanov as the greatest master of the instrument I have ever heard. Today there are more star-quality viola players than ever before, including Tabea Zimmermann, Yuri Bashmet, Lawrence Power, Kim Kashkashian and Nobuko Imai. Yet for me Rysanov is even more exciting than these illustrious virtuosi. For me the two Brahms Sonatas have never sounded such great works, and I believe many listeners will be similarly persuaded by Rysanov’s phenomenal performances.
Surely there has been too much emphasis on the autumnal qualities associated with Brahms’ late music. Is this not a lazy cliché, describing only one element of these multi-faceted works? In the two clarinet/viola sonatas there is no shortage of muscularity, passion, energy, humour or light-heartedness, but it takes performances of this stature to open up the wide expressive range which Brahms encompasses in these works. Rysanov is a great musician who plays the viola – not merely an outstanding instrumentalist. There is an ease about his playing, a total expressive freedom which is absolutely thrilling. Also one quickly takes for granted his perfect intonation.
The matter of viola tone is a question of personal taste. The instrument can sound veiled, foggy or, on the C string, booming, and to some these qualities may seem ideal. Rysanov produces a fabulous quality of sound – honeyed yet extremely clear, paradoxical though this may seem. No matter how forceful he can be - and his dynamic range is remarkable – he always sounds as though he has more in reserve.
Tone in itself is only one aspect. A ravishing sound soon becomes cloying if not sufficiently varied. Rysanov has an excellent instinct for those passages of lower emotional temperature which benefit from a reduction of vibrato or a shadowy tone. Equally he negotiates the tricky semiquaver arpeggio passages in the opening movement of the F minor sonata and the final movement of the E flat sonata with terrific clarity and élan. These are the passages which usually sound better on Brahms’ first-choice instrument, the clarinet, but Rysanov completely banishes any thoughts that the viola is a lesser alternative.
As I suggested, the prevailing view of Brahms’ late music as autumnal needs revising. Many performers perhaps temper their approach, allowing too much “old man’s” nostalgia. After all, Brahms was only into his early sixties, and his creative rejuvenation motivated by Mühlfeld’s clarinet playing is especially obvious in the fire and passion of the Clarinet Quintet.
Rysanov plays the Vivace finale of the F minor sonata with marvellous energy and extrovert spirit. Again, the grazioso passage in the variation finale of the E flat sonata is not only graceful but more playful and skittish than I ever imagined it. From the E flat sonata the second movement is truly appassionato as well as heroic. These are just a few examples of the revelatory nature of Rysanov’s interpretations.
Having said my piece about this fabulous viola-player, I must not neglect the other fantastic musicians on these discs. They are all exceptional chamber-music players and I quite honestly could not wish to hear more intensely musical and committed interpretations of these various works. Brahms’ piano parts are always demanding, but both Rysanov’s partners are superb in every respect. There is more light and shade in Brahms than is often realised – his music does not have to be heavily Teutonic and strenuous all the time – and these performances admirably support this view. I had to keep playing these CDs just to make sure I was not overdoing the superlatives, but I stand by my first impressions. This really is completely inspired music-making.
On the question of arrangements, it has to be said that the reservations I had regarding these alternative versions of the two trios soon evaporated. Brahms himself wrote to publisher Simrock “My Horn-Trio should be provided with a viola part instead of the cello! With cello it sounds dreadful, but splendid with the viola! The title should read: Horn or viola!” Brahms is known also to have rehearsed the A minor Trio – a great work which has always been overshadowed by the Clarinet Quintet – with viola. In this version the viola part is particularly difficult, much of it lying in a high register, but Rysanov makes it sound effortless and totally natural. In both the trios the combination of two string instruments with piano is very satisfying, and on the strength of these performances I would question why we don’t hear these alternatives more often.
The G major Violin Sonata is played here - transposed into D major - in an adaptation by Paul Klengel (1854-1935), who was “house arranger” at Simrock. The lowering of key may be disconcerting to some, but with a performance of this quality any such reservations should soon be forgotten.
The listed timings are slightly inaccurate, while the notes (brief but good) include a section on Brahms and the viola, summaries of the included works and biographies of all the players. Happily the foliage art-work is not too autumnal, and actually very beautiful. The recorded sound and balance are all one could wish for.
This recording is on my list of CDs of the year. I’d be surprised if there were anything classier in the chamber music section. I dearly hope Onyx will engage Rysanov to record Schumann’s chamber music including solo viola as soon as possible.
Philip Borg-Wheeler


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