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Sonatas for viola and piano - Vol. 2
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Sonata in F minor for viola and piano, Op. 120 No. 1 (1894) [22.08]
Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Sonata in A minor for Arpeggione (arr. viola) and piano D. 821 (1824) [23.32]
César FRANCK (1822-90)
Sonata in A major for violin (arr. viola) and piano (1886) [26.47]
Tabea Zimmermann (viola)
Kirill Gerstein (piano)
rec. July 2011, Deutschlandfunk Kammermusiksaal.

Tabea Zimmermann is a fabulous viola-player. I once played in the orchestra when she performed Walton's concerto. When she followed this with an encore by Vieuxtemps the audience was unbelievably quiet. I think most of them had no idea that a solo viola could sound so ravishingly beautiful. This beauty of tone and deeply cultured musicianship are heard to the greatest advantage here in the Schubert sonata. Some duos seem to graft onto this music an inappropriate sense of drama and create too high an emotional temperature. Zimmermann and Gerstein play with supreme taste, refinement and an ideal feeling for just how much this attractive but not profound work can take.
The performance of the Brahms sonata also is very fine, although I do feel that beauty is paramount here - rather at the expense of deeper emotional currents. This is eminently civilised music-making which underplays the fire and drama which are surely essential to this late Brahms. I bear in mind that many writers would have us believe that Brahms was “autumnal” at this stage of his life to the exclusion of any stronger character. Turn to Maxim Rysanov (on Onyx) for fire and drama and, in the slow movement, more heartache. In almost every way I find Rysanov - with his admirable pianist Katya Apekisheva - digs more deeply, is more musically searching, making this sonata sound a greater piece than I can ever remember. Rysanov again is preferable in the last two movements - light, more buoyant and finding more humour in the finale, whereas Zimmermann/Gerstein are gentle and warm but not so interesting. To sum up, Rysanov's Brahms has more fibre, more urgency where necessary and certainly a wider expressive range. This Myrios disc would be a perfectly good way to get to know the Brahms sonata, before moving on.
Rysanov has also recorded the Franck sonata … I have raved about him before now and his Franck (from 2007, with Evelyn Chang) often takes my breath away. Compared with Ms. Zimmermann he is just that much more exciting. He achieves a considerably wider dynamic range, greater emotional intensity when needed and his willingness to take risks produces a great sense of involvement. He is capable of reducing his quiet tone to a feathery quality with minimal vibrato without - to my mind - sounding affected. His fortissimos are overwhelming without any sacrifice in quality. I feel that Franck's magnificent sonata needs more tension and striving than Ms. Zimmermann and Gerstein offer, though they are admirable in many ways. Ms. Zimmermann certainly opens out - as at the big climaxes in the last movement - yet that same impeccable taste which suited the Arpeggione Sonata seems to me not quite enough in this most passionate example of French Romanticism. It is as though nothing must interfere with beauty for its own sake. The result is a little too chaste and short on fervour. There is also a trace of self-consciousness here and there, such as the very beginning of the finale. Here Rysanov and Chang achieve simplicity without sounding matter-of-fact. Incidentally, the viola Ms. Zimmermann plays on this CD is not an “old master” but an instrument from 1980 by Étienne Vatelot, who died this year aged 87.
The booklet notes by Stephan Cahen are good on the composers' lives and background to each piece, but about the actual music there is not much beyond general remarks. I should have liked some insight into how each sonata unfolds.
Philip Borg-Wheeler