Brahms is one of those industrious composers who seems to have condemned many of his works to undeserved obscurity just through his sheer industry. Unless you are a violinist or a Brahms aficionado, the chances are that your knowledge of his Violin Sonatas is sketchy at best. But they are great works - fine examples of the composer's later chamber music. Brahms never had any hang-ups about presenting unadorned, simple music, even in his later years. The beauty of much of this music stems from the uncluttered melodic style – a violin melody and a propulsive piano accompaniment, what more do you need? There are denser textures too, and plenty of contrapuntal episodes, although the clarity of the weave is retained in these as well.
There are similarities between these works and the Schumann Violin Sonatas. Like Schumann, Brahms has conveniently left three contributions to the genre that fit neatly onto a CD, and like those by Schumann, each sonata is a perfectly crafted chamber work. But, in an unusual reversal of their relationship, Brahms' Violin Sonatas are the more modest. They are structurally more conservative, texturally lighter, and are based primarily on melodic invention rather than integrating development.
By the later years of Brahms' career, his writing for the violin and for the piano was as proficient as that of any 19th century composer. While most of the textures in these sonatas are lucid, both players, and the violinist in particular, are being put through their paces in terms of technique. Brahms knows how to make the most of the lower end of the violin's range to create richness and depth. His use of the middle register is usually for very simple textures, which need to be straightforward without sounding naïve. On the rare occasions he ventures above the stave, it is usually for dramatic effect, to give brilliance to a climax.
Geneviève Laurenceau is at her best in the lower register. All those rich, flowing passages on the G string come across magnificently, and her precision with the tuning of double-stopping in the lower register is faultless. The simple mid-range textures also come across well, thanks in part to her vibrato, which she is able to reduce to the point where it is barely perceptible for those plain melodic expositions. I'm less impressed by the high passages, which bring out a slightly unpleasant edge in her tone. As I say, Brahms rarely ventures up there anyway.
Johan Farjot is a sympathetic pianist, always alert to the soloist’s changes of tempo and mood, both the subtle gradations and the immediate shifts. In general, he leaves all the drama to her and never competes for the limelight. That apparent subservience may in part be a result of the recording balance that favours the violin over the piano. That isn't usually a problem, but it can sometimes give the impression that the recording engineer knows better than either the composer or the performers how the instruments should interact. Whenever Brahms writes high pianissimo chords in the piano accompanying the violin in mid-range, the piano seems very distant indeed. And given the discretion of the violin playing in these passages, the intervention at the mixing desk is unnecessary.
In general, though, this is a good recording, and is worth hearing simply for the quality of the violin playing. Brahms' chamber music repertoire contains many works that are more ambitious and involving than these, but it is a real strength of these performances that the players don't try to make more of the music than the notes on the page can justify.