This is a very fine DVD. The very silence which meets you as the title page unfolds oozes quality, and I for one am truly grateful there is no endlessly repeating fragment from the programme to irritate us before starting the concert proper. Being thus positively disposed towards the contents from the outset, it is also not hard to be warmly appreciative of the music-making on this recording.
I am usually rather attracted towards live recordings, and this has plenty of the ‘vibe’ which makes for a rather special experience. There are two dates given for this performance, but as there seems to be no discontinuity when trying to spot changes in the audience this was presumably only for some ‘invisible mending’ after the event, and perhaps some of the other material. The Bibliotheksaal is a beautiful space, and the eye is occasionally given some relief by looking up at the painted ceiling. There is quite a lot of close-up camerawork, but this is done quite skillfully, and even with the close-zoom tracking of the violin in action it’s not as dizzying as some styles of film-making - usually cookery programmes for some reason. With five cameras in action there is plenty of visual variety, and a thankful lack of special effects. The final Encore track, a lovely performance of the Wiegenlied, is nicely placed on a separate track outside of the main programme.
Neither Anne-Sophie Mutter nor Lambert Orkis go in for dramatic histrionics in any of these sonatas, and while you might not expect this anyway there are some explicit reasons dealt with later on in their discussions on the music and how they see its performance. It is in the nature of Brahms’s violin sonatas that a feeling of ‘warm embrace’ is one of the main impressions with which one is left, even with what can at times be turbulent and intense music. The idiomatic refinement Brahms has for the violin, and his pianist’s feel for the possible, even when pushing the keyboard close to its limits, means that there is a sense of consolation and welcoming warmth in which both of these musicians are in complete sympathy. In this way there recording is comparable with that of Itzhak Perlman and Vladimir Ashkenazy on EMI, always playing within technical capacity, but not glossing over the sense of longing and even pain which can and should be expressed. With Mutter and Orkis the moments of dance move with a sense of propelling physicality, the deepest melodic emotions played with a superb sense of balance and sensitively nuanced colour: the second movement Andante tranquillo - Vivace of the Sonata No.2 in A major Op.100 having all of these qualities wrapped into single movement. The Sonata No.1 in G major has a special place in this trilogy, and both musicians mention their particular affection for the work. This comes through in a synergy between these two musicians so close that, even if you could get a cigarette paper between them, you’d never extricate it in one piece. The refinement of dynamics is particularly notable in the Adagio, where a musical landscape is created reaching from the utmost delicacy - almost al niente - to moments where profundity and emotion dig deep and soar high. Such a truly involving performance is one to treasure indeed. Technical and dramatic fireworks can be let loose more in the Sonata No.3 in D minor, and if you were wondering if these musicians could let their hair down then this comes closest. While the technical control is always pretty absolute, there is no lack of passion and excitement in this performance. The Adagio is another masterpiece, and if it appears as if I’m only picking on the slow movements then yes, for me it’s these which form the emotional heart of each sonata, and demand so much of the control and sense of touch which has of necessity to come closest to the essence of the music. With Brahms there is no place to hide in the slow movements, and a performance can stand or fall by the feeling given to those long expressive lines, the weight of tone and subtlety of vibrato from the violin and the sonority and harmonic balance from the piano. You have to expect and demand excellence at this level in all of the movements, but with each work built from a foundation and basis in tenderness this is where I go to find out if a recording is one I’ll want to hear again and again, and this is emphatically the case with this DVD.
This live performance has been available from DG on a single CD since March 2010. Unless your ‘thing’ is being able to see the musicians in action rather than on a mere sound-carrier, the main benefit of this kind of DVD is extended background information and some personal responses to the music. In this regard this release is very good, with the only complaint being Anne-Sophie Mutter’s individual talk on the Brahms violin sonatas being in German, and with no subtitles available as far as I could make out. The tracks with Mutter and Orkis describing and showing their respect and sheer enjoyment of these pieces are a treat. Don’t ignore the ‘promotional video’, which brings a great deal of these musicians’ interaction to light through some priceless rehearsal moments, but despite a certain amount of overlap the ‘conversation’ is also an excellent history of how both performers came to discover Brahms and the violin sonatas. This also covers the technical demands of the pieces and their origins, the importance of understanding as much as possible what is behind the notes of each composition, the ways in which their experiences of the pieces has deepened over the years: “not showing off, showing life”, as Lambert Orkis concludes; as concise a description of the essence of Brahms as one could imagine.