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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Violin Sonata No. 1 in G major Op.78 (1878) [27:58]
Violin Sonata No. 2 in A major Op.100 (1886) [20:31]
Violin Sonata No. 3 in D minor Op.108 (1886-1888) [22:48]
Scherzo in C minor WoO2 (1853) [6:01]
Catherine Manoukian (violin); Gunilla Süssmann (piano)
rec. Beethovensaal, Hannover, Germany, 22-26 February 2012
BERLIN CLASSICS 0300567BC [75:24]

Catherine Manoukian's violin playing is a recent delightful discovery for me. Her disc of the Elgar Violin Concerto proved to be one of the most compelling and persuasive versions of recent years. My particular pleasure is that her performance aesthetic seems to hark back to an earlier time; there is no sense of artifice or affectation and in the most complimentary of ways I find her playing to be 'old-school'. This bears on her technique as well as her approach to the musical interpretation.

The three Brahms violin sonatas are perfect vehicles for this Romantic and passionate approach and so it proves here; this is a rather special disc. Fortunately for Manoukian, she has found in her pianist colleague Gunilla Süssmann an ideal collaborator and has been given by the Berlin Classics production team a rich and full recording wholly appropriate for her interpretations. With works so central to the violin repertoire there are a host of fine alternatives. I compared Manoukian to two of my most favourite players, Josef Suk with Julius Katchen on Decca - a justly famous set - and Aaron Rosand with Hugh Sung on Vox. To be honest I would not want to be without either of those very fine sets, but having heard Manoukian all I can say is that her performances can stand alongside either with ease.

Interestingly, Suk and Manoukian were a similar age when their performances were recorded; Suk 38 back in 1967 and Manoukian 33 with Rosand, a patrician 75. This does seem to impact on the performance styles and even though all three favour fairly steady reflective tempi for the opening of the First Sonata Op.78 — the adjacent opus to the Violin Concerto — it is Rosand who finds an extra degree of backward-looking regret and nostalgic poignancy. Broadly speaking Manoukian favours the greatest extremes of Romantic expression whilst Suk prefers a more contained 'classical' approach. Drama is another keyword I would apply to Manoukian: she is not afraid to a bend a musical phrase well away from its written form on the page. Her success is managing to make these carefully considered choices - as evidenced by the perfect accord with the piano - sound spontaneous and fresh. It will be for collectors to decide whether this interventionist approach will appeal to them for repeated listening. All I can say is that it works for me. As mentioned earlier, Gunilla Süssmann proves an excellent collaborator - in these major complex works the word accompanist seems too peripheral. This is big-boned dramatic playing - try the opening of the 2nd Sonata, on this current disc the opening allegro amabile develops into a powerfully exciting ardent movement. Katchen's piano, much more recessed on the sound-stage and less fully recorded is not able to impose itself on the music as strikingly and the old Decca recording does start to show its age. Both Suk and Katchen are masters of the nuanced musical phrase; painting in watercolours compared to Manoukian and Süssmann's large-scale oil canvas.

It is important to remember that all three of the sonatas and the second and third in particular are products of Brahms' late period of chamber music masterpieces. There is a wisdom evidenced in every bar not just about the craft of writing music but of life in general. This is where I find Rosand's hugely poised yet profoundly humane approach pays great dividends. So it is to Manoukian's enormous credit that I find her performance of the late 3rd Sonata to be the best of all. There seems to be the ideal balance between impulsive spontaneity and rapt reflection. Her technique is fully up to Brahms' sometimes awkward writing. My highlight of the entire disc is her reading of the second movement Adagio (track 8). This crystallises her entire approach - a gloriously rich tone aided by Süssmann's perfectly paced and voiced chords, passionate yet held and with little technical touches that place her firmly in an earlier age of playing. Fingering is a very personal thing for string players; what works and feels comfortable technically and musically for one will be a minefield for another. Manoukian often shifts on the same finger which produces a small expressive slide or portamento. Many modern players prefer absolute clarity when changing position but I adore the extra emotional 'weight' that a tasteful applied slide - as here - can bring. If you need any proof that this is an expressive tool, listen to the very next movement; as crisply and cleanly played un poco presto as one could ever hear. Rosand is more mercurial in the closing presto agitato - he's not helped by less than wonderful engineering - and in his seventies even though he plays at a fractionally faster basic tempo than Manoukian he does not have the sheer muscular power that the younger player does. This allows Manoukian to be theatrically dramatic from stormy passage work to swooning lyrical interludes. All in all this movement seems to be a summation of the triptych of sonatas and a fittingly exhilarating and life-affirming piece of music. The disc closes with a nice bonus in the form of the scherzo Brahms contributed to the joint F-A-E sonata in 1853 - the other movements being written by Robert Schumann and Albert Dietrich. This is not music that aspires to the grandeur of the 'main' sonatas so inevitably there is something of an anti-climax coming as it does after the superb performance of the Op.108. Neither Rosand nor Suk offer any coupling and not surprisingly Manoukian and Süssmann pitch an ideally dynamic and fleet interpretation.

Take the generous playing time, add an attractive booklet well printed on high quality paper in German and English only, with interesting articles by Ulf Brenken well translated and it is clear this is a very high quality production indeed. I find it all but impossible to say that any single performance of core repertoire supersedes all others but suffice to say that this disc is worthy of consideration with the very best. Any admirers of fine violin playing owe it to themselves to familiarise themselves with Catherine Manoukian's work.

Nick Barnard