Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
CD 1 [75:05]
F.A.E. Sonata: Scherzo (1853) [5:40]
Violin Sonata No. 1 in G major, Op. 78 (1879) [27:00]
Violin Sonata No. 2 in A major, Op. 100 (1886) [20:30]
Violin Sonata No. 3 in D minor, Op. 108 (1888) [21:45]
CD 2 [58:15]
Cello Sonata No. 1 in E minor, Op. 38 (1865) [28:27]
Cello Sonata No. 2 in F major, Op. 99 (1886) [29:38]
Jaime Laredo (violin); Leonard Rose (cello); Jean-Bernard Pommier (piano)
rec. January 1983 (CD1), August 1982 (CD2), Château de Malesherbes, France. DDD
VIRGIN CLASSICS 0963652 [75:05 + 58:15]

This double CD from Virgin is a reissue of recordings of the Brahms violin and cello sonatas dating from the early digital period. The violinist Jaime Laredo and the cellist Leonard Rose, Americans both, are accompanied by the French pianist Jean-Bernard Pommier. The sonatas are basic repertoire for string players, and competition is correspondingly stiff. However, there are not that many recordings which combine all five sonatas.

Brahms’ first essay in the violin sonata form was the Scherzo movement from the F.A.E. Sonata, a work jointly written by Brahms, Schumann, and Schumann’s pupil Albert Dietrich. This is a vigorous movement with a repeated note motif and characteristic Brahmsian cross-rhythms. The Scherzo receives a bracing performance, with Laredo not afraid to put weight on the bow. Immediately one notices the rather dry recording, something that makes the piano sound a bit dead; the violin can also seem bleached on the upper strings above forte.

The first complete violin sonata was published in 1879. It is often known as the “Regensonate” or “Rain Sonata” because it borrows several themes from Brahms’ song “Regenlied”, composed in 1873. It is a mostly gentle, lyrical work in Brahms’ early manner, not unlike Beethoven’s “Spring” violin sonata no. 5, op. 24. Laredo and Pommier play the first movement in a serene fashion. Here, as throughout, there is genuine chamber music interchange, with one player receding when the other has the spotlight. Their measured approach to the second movement generates tension, and Laredo’s double-stopping at the return of the theme has warmth. The finale is one of Brahms’ elegantly unsettled movements; the duo develops its short motifs into longer episodes with great skill.

The second sonata in A major was written seven years later in 1886 and has a positive, open feeling. As before, Laredo and Pommier emphasise the lyrical character of the opening movement. Some of Laredo’s playing lacks tonal allure, and his intonation is not always spot-on. The expansive set of variations which forms its second movement is similar to the Poco adagio from the earlier String Sextet no. 2 in G major, op. 36. Laredo and Pommier approach the theme seriously and the variations are well contrasted. The finale brings some soulful, viola-like sounds from Laredo’s G string and the double-stopping is juicily played.

The third Sonata is the only one to feature a Scherzo. Although written only a couple of years later than the A major work, it is much more turbulent in mood, as its key of D minor would suggest. The clouded beginning steals in, and Pommier’s right hand doubles the violin line delicately. The second movement brings some lovely legato playing and tasteful expressive slides from Laredo. The scherzo is another of Brahms’ elegantly wistful movements with more agitato episodes. The Presto is launched with fervour; Laredo sacrifices some tone in the loud chordal passages.

As it happens, the Laredo/Pommier Brahms Violin Sonatas was one of the first CDs I bought, and I was glad to make its acquaintance again. My comparison recording is that of György Pauk and Roger Vignoles, released as part of the Brilliant Classics complete Brahms chamber music. It is also available as a single CD (Brilliant Classics Catalog # 93989). The relaxed nature of their interplay tells of their long experience as a duo; they take about a minute and a half longer over the first sonata, but timings are otherwise pretty close. The recording is a bit more “dead” than the Virgin recording, but the piano sound is superior.

With over twenty years between them, the Brahms Cello sonatas are much more widely separated than the violin sonatas. The first sonata is quite experimental in structure. It begins with a fairly slow movement marked Allegro no troppo, followed by an Allegretto quasi menuetto; a fugal Allegro concludes the work. There is thus no slow movement as such. Emotionally this work has a rather searching, questing character, which mutates into the vigorous finale. Rose and Pommier approach the first movement of the E minor Sonata in an intense fashion. Rose produces some rich sounds from his lower strings, together with a few expressive slides; his tone is consistently attractive throughout. The balance between the instruments is much better than usual on performances of these works employing modern instruments, and the piano sounds less dead than it did in the violin sonatas. The second movement is another of Brahms’ rather veiled movements, and the duo adopts a steady tempo as it tracks its emotional shifts. The final fugal movement is also played in quite a deliberate fashion, building tension as it progresses.

The Second sonata is more conventional than the earlier sonata, being laid out on a four movement pattern. It opens in an extravert, quasi-orchestral style. The brief fourth movement is one of Brahms’s most genial works, a Hungarian-flavoured rondo rather like the finale of the second Piano concerto. Rose and Pommier give the opening of the second Sonata propulsive energy, with some more very attractive cello playing; the minor key episodes are not rushed. The slow movement is expansive, with Rose given the chance to show off his fine legato phrasing. The third movement features good contrast between the upper and lower registers of the cello, and between legato and martelé bowing. The finale has plenty of dynamic shading, and features excellent interplay between the duo partners, as is the case throughout.

My comparison for the Cello Sonatas is the 2007 release by Sonia Wieder-Atherton and Imogen Cooper (RCA 88697 201872). This comes as a two CD set, with Brahms’ arrangement of the Violin Sonata no. 1 for cello and piano; it thus offers all Brahms’ cello and piano works, both original and arranged. There are also arrangements of three movements from Bach cantatas to leaven the mix. This version emphasises the lyrical quality of the Cello Sonatas, and the duo playing is of a very high standard. They are also very well recorded at La Ferme de Villefavard in Limousin, France.

Given their age, I thought the Rose/Pommier Cello Sonatas stood up pretty well to the comparison; their performances have a lot of musical integrity, and Leonard Rose’s playing is consistently attractive. The Laredo Violin Sonatas are very well played too, although the recording is not as good. If cost is not a factor, I would go for Pauk in the Violin Sonatas and Wieder-Atherton in the Cello Sonatas. For Brahms lovers on a budget, however, the present issue is a handy way instantly to acquire some of his best chamber works in enjoyable performances.

Guy Aron

This re-release of the Brahms Violin and Cello Sonatas is very well played by Laredo and Rose, but the recording of the Violin Sonatas lets it down a little.