This two CD set is a collection of Brahms' chamber works in
versions for or transcribed for viola. It is performed here
by the young and very talented Maxim Rysanov, winner of the
prestigious 2008 Classic FM Gramophone Young Artist of the Year.
Four of the five works were originally written for clarinet,
and were inspired by Brahms' friendship with the clarinettist
Richard Muhlfeld, which flourished late in the composer's life.
The fifth is the Trio (Op. 40) originally for horn (here viola),
violin and piano, which is a considerably earlier work.
The CD 1 opens with the first of the two Sonatas making up
Op. 120, for clarinet / viola and piano. Its companion is found
opening the second of the two discs. They were written in the
aftermath of bereavement - the death of two close friends of
the composer. Each has a melancholy atmosphere. The first, in
F minor, is passionate but edgy in mood and tone. The exception
is in the graceful and very slow Andante which comprises its
second movement. The music then metaphorically rouses itself
and returns to a mood of restless and nervous energy. The Vivace
finale is characterised by a bell-like tolling motif, reiterating
the mood of loss and mourning. Although the viola is in the
foreground, Katya Apekisheva on piano deserves commendation
too. Her playing, subtle and always appropriate, balances the
strings but never overshadows them. In the second sonata, the
piano part is taken by Jacob Katsnelson, who takes a slightly
more prominent role in this more tranquil and lyrical work:
Brahms' final contribution to the repertoire of chamber music.
This work is followed by another sonata, a transcription for
viola - to which Rysanov has himself contributed in the details
of the arrangement - of Violin Sonata no. 1 in G major, Op.
78. This is one of a series of three violin sonatas composed
for Joseph Joachim and contemporaneous with the Violin Concerto.
It is nicknamed "Regenlied" - "The Rain Song"
due to the similarity of its rhythm to the pattering of raindrops.
This analogy is clearly brought out in this performance. The
work is also described as "an idyll under cloudy skies".
Clara Schumann was fond of the piece and wished its last
movement to "accompany her in her journey from here into
the next world".
The last of the three works on the first disc is a trio in
E flat, Op. 40. This is from much earlier in the composer's
output and the only work here not to be in sonata form. Here
instead of a transposition of writing for clarinet, it is the
horn for which the viola is substituted. This work is contemporaneous
with the German Requiem, both being written shortly after the
death of the composer's mother. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it is
predominantly sorrowful - especially the mesto slow (third)
movement. This is relieved only by the finale, a hunting scene
perhaps inspired by walking in the Black Forest where this work
was written. However, it has a very characteristically Brahmsian
sound - echoing the second and third symphonies as well as the
German Requiem. It is in some ways more straightforward for
the listener than the sequence of very late works which
make up the backbone of this recording. In this way it serves
to refresh the ear and anchor one's listening experience.
The second disc of the pair is more homogeneous than the first,
containing two works both from the late series inspired by Richard
Muhlfeld: the second of the Op. 120 Sonatas (q.v.) - Brahms'
final chamber work - and an A minor trio, Op. 114, for
clarinet/viola, cello and piano. The trio is, perhaps understandably,
better known in its original form, but it is interesting to
hear this variation. The viola's part in the Trio is pretty
much a straightforward transcription of the original clarinet
part, whereas in arranging the Op. 120 sonatas, Brahms gave
them more work to create a new character with the new instrumentation.
Maxim Rysanov is originally from the Ukraine but is now based
in London. He has also recorded a disc featuring both the Kancheli
concerto Styx and John Tavener's The Myrrh Bearer - a Gramophone
Editor's choice. There is another highly recommended disc of
Bach chamber works, with the cellist Torleif Thedéen
and the violinist Janine Jensen. Whilst continuing his career
as a soloist, he appears as a conductor. He has forthcoming
British concerts with the Britten Sinfonia and with the Bournemouth
Symphony Orchestra. Further details are on his own website,
The other players, who are all very distinguished multiple
prize-winners in their own rights, play their own respective
parts skilfully and commendably. In particular, Kristine Blaumane's
cello in the Op. 114 Trio is a pleasure in itself.
The disc is perhaps of most interest to those wishing to approach
Brahms' chamber repertoire with thoroughness, although these
transcriptions are perfectly pleasant to listen to. Three of
these works were composed specifically for a great clarinettist
and although Brahms was persuaded by his publisher that providing
an alternative part for viola would give them a wider appeal,
he was not entirely happy with the result. These transcriptions
are not entirely unproblematic but the playing of them here
is superb. This set serves to showcase a remarkable performer
whose playing has been favourably compared with that of Yuri
Bashmet in his youth. He is definitely someone to look out for
and reviewing this disc has whetted my appetite to his other
see also review by Philip
(February Recording of the Month)