Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Sonata in A major, op. 100, arr. Chase (1886-1887) [20:31]
Viola Sonata No. 1 in F minor, Op. 120, no. 1 (1894) [38:18]
Viola Sonata No. 2 in E flat major, Op. 120, no. 2 (1894) [20:53]
Roger Chase (viola), Michiko Otaki (piano)
rec. 24-25 May 2007, Potton Hall, Suffolk. DDD
CENTAUR CRC 3063 [64:29]
Brahms’ works for viola are spin-offs from his Indian summer years. He was inspired by hearing Richard Mühlfeld, the principal clarinettist of the Meiningen Orchestra. This prompted the writing of the Clarinet Quintet and Clarinet Trio of 1891 as well as the Sonatas for clarinet and piano of 1894. Ever keen to maximise the commercial potential of his compositions, Brahms went on to make arrangements for viola of all these works. These comprise an arrangement for string quartet and solo obbligato viola of the Quintet, one for viola, cello and piano of the Trio, and versions for viola and piano of the Sonatas op. 120. The last two are the best known of these alternatives and represent an important contribution to the Romantic viola repertoire.
The present recording, by Roger Chase and Michiko Otaki, comprises the op. 120 Sonatas, and an arrangement by Chase of Brahms’ Violin Sonata no. 2, op. 100, for viola and piano. Chase’s arrangement makes more sense when one learns that Brahms also provided versions of the op. 120 Sonatas for violin and piano – making a total of five works for that combination. At any rate this sonata works well in its alternative scoring. Chase has a mellow sound that is less fruity than that of some other violists. Generally he tends to emphasise the lyrical and reflective side. He indulges in a few expressive slides, but these are done in a refined fashion and in good taste. Otaki accompanies him discreetly, with firm phrasing when she has the melodic interest. There is some fine interplay between the artists, and phrases are sensitively shaped with good dynamic gradation.
The two op. 120 Sonatas are played in Lionel Tertis’s original arrangement of the clarinet sonatas. To me these did not sound notably different to Brahms’ versions - although they might to viola aficionados. Chase and Otaki begin the F minor Sonata in dramatic and declamatory fashion, which soon gives way to a more grazioso episode, with which Chase seems somewhat more comfortable. The second movement has careful dynamic shading, and the pastoral mood of the finale suits Chase’s fine legato. The E flat major Sonata opens in tranquil mood, rather like a voyage down a peaceful river, with excursions into some reflective pools. Chase cleverly alternates detached with legato bowing in the second movement to give the phrases an expressive twist. The opening theme of the finale is played with smooth legato, and the minor episodes are well contrasted. The quasi-Hungarian coda brings the work to a vigorous conclusion. As before, Chase tends to emphasise the cantabile aspect of these works, and this leads to a slight slackening of dramatic tension in what are otherwise enjoyable performances.
Lawrence Power’s 2006 performance of the op. 120 Sonatas on Hyperion combines them with the viola version of Brahms’ Trio op. 114, better known in its original scoring for clarinet, cello and piano. His accompanist is Simon Crawford-Phillips, and Tim Hugh plays the cello. Power and Crawford-Phillips combine well in the Sonatas; Tim Hugh is perhaps a bit recessive in the Trio, being at pains to give Power the limelight. Power takes a somewhat more vigorous approach to these works than Chase, and this is reflected in the timings. For the F minor Sonata, Power takes 21:44 as against 23:05 for Chase; the E flat Sonata takes 19:52 versus 20:53. The Hyperion recording is of a very high standard as usual. However Chase’s approach to the sonatas is equally valid, and some may prefer his more relaxed interpretations. These are both fine sets of the Brahms viola sonatas, so the choice can be based on one’s preference for the coupling. The Centaur recording has a natural sound, with particularly good piano reproduction.

Guy Aron

These are accomplished performances of the Brahms viola sonatas that emphasise their lyrical and reflective aspects, and make an enjoyable disc for late night listening.