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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Sonata No. 1 in G major for Violin and Piano, Op. 78 (1879) [28:45]
Sonata No. 2 in A major for Violin and Piano, Op. 100 (1886) [20:41]
Sonata No. 3 in D minor for Violin and Piano, Op. 108 (1886-88) [21:53]
Scherzo in C minor, WoO2 (from F-A-E Sonata) (1853) [5:32]
Augustin Dumay (violin); Louis Lortie (piano)
rec. Teldex Studio, Berlin, Germany, 27-28 March and 2-3 April 2014
ONYX 4133 [77:01]

Augustin Dumay recorded these sonatas with Maria Joo Pires for DG more than twenty years ago. They did not include the Scherzo that Brahms composed as the third movement of a sonata jointly written by Schumann, his pupil Albert Dietrich, and himself. “F-A-E” refers to three notes used as an ide fixe in the work. They represent Joseph Joachim’s personal motto Frei aber einsam. Schumann suggested this collaborative work to honour his violinist friend Joachim, though the Scherzo was published separately by Joachim only in 1906. It is a nice bonus to have, but it is not in any way a deal-breaker. The sonatas are three of the greatest.

There are so many excellent recordings of these sonatas that I am limiting myself to two for comparison: Itzhak Perlman and Vladimir Ashkenazy (EMI), recorded in 1983, and the more recent one with Nikolaj Znaider and Yefim Bronfman (RCA Red Seal) from 2005. I haven’t heard the Dumay/Pires for quite a while, but remember it as being patrician and understated, but warm-hearted, too. Timings obviously do not tell the whole story, but then as now Dumay takes more time with the works than either Perlman or Znaider. For example, Sonata No.1 with Dumay/Lortie lasts 28:45 and Dumay/Pires 28:52, while Perlman/Ashkenazy complete theirs in 27:02 and Znaider/Bronfman in 25:54. The same distinctions apply in varying degrees to the other sonatas, with Dumay the slowest and Znaider the fleetest. Yet, the differences in tempo are not as substantial as the variety in the interpretations and sound of the performances and recordings.

As before, Dumay has a mellow and rich violin tone. He plays a Guarneri del Ges of 1743-44 that reminds me a good deal of Isaac Stern’s accounts of these works. Unlike Stern, though, Dumay has a pianist in Lortie who does not stay in the background, but is a real partner with the violinist. This is crucial, as these are sonatas for violin and piano, and Brahms after all was a fine pianist. Dumay and Lortie perform these sonatas with great feeling and the balance between violin and piano is exemplary. They are recorded in a warm acoustic. The balance on Znaider’s recording seems to favour the piano, and Bronfman brings out the depth in the piano writing better than I have heard it elsewhere. At times, though, this makes the narrower tone of Znaider’s 1704 Stradivarius seem slighter than it is in reality. Znaider’s vibrato is also faster but less pronounced than Perlman’s. With Dumay, one is not distracted at all by his judicious use of vibrato. Furthermore, while Znaider and especially Perlman employ more portamento, Dumay largely eschews this. On the other hand, Dumay and Lortie’s accounts contain more rubato. At the very end of the G major Sonata’s first movement, Dumay holds his note before joining the piano to finish the movement. Likewise, Dumay/Lortie accelerate the last appearance of the scherzo material in the second movement of the A major Sonata with striking pizzicati, ending the movement with a flourish. All three teams excel in the darker D minor Sonata with Dumay/Lortie really observing the Presto agitato indication for the last movement. Here their timing is quicker than the others: 5:19 vs. 5:42 (Perlman) and 5:33 (Znaider).

Both Dumay/Lortie and Znaider/Bronfman conclude their programmes with the F-A-E Sonata Scherzo; Perlman/Ashkenazy offer only the three sonatas. It is nice to hear what the younger Brahms could do with the medium he was to master much later in life with the extraordinary sonatas. The two recordings of the short Scherzo have much in common and Dumay/Lortie really take off with some vehemence. The work seems to me prescient of the scherzos in the Piano Quintet and Horn Trio.

All told, the three recordings of these sonatas have much to offer the listener. Perlman/Ashkenazy may be the most extroverted, as Znaider/Bronfman and Dumay/Lortie are rather more introverted, but I find it hard to choose one interpretation over another. Right now, I am enthralled by this new recording of warm and deeply felt accounts by Dumay/Lortie.

Onyx houses the disc in an attractive book-like structure with a sleeve for the CD and 32 pages of substantial notes in English, German and French.

Leslie Wright

Another review ...

First let me compliment the design. The disc is housed in a thick cover which resembles a miniaturised 78-rpm album, in autumnal colours with brown stitching on the spine. It even has a mottled look indicative of too many hours in direct sunlight no good for shellac and a few artful water stains. Very attractive.

Then there are the two artists, Augustin Dumay and Louis Lortie, one of the most admired duos of our time. Dumay is one of the last authentic upholders of the Franco-Belgian lineage via his teacher Arthur Grumiaux, one of whose bows he uses here — he plays the ex-Kogan violin. Louis Lortie is a great stylist, and a near-ideal collaborator in this project. Their previous Onyx disc was of Franck and Richard Strauss and it was much admired.

Theirs is indeed an admirable pairing. Dumay sees the First Sonata as spiritual and melancholy and plays it thus. There is lyricism, fluency and phrasal plasticity, but he and Lortie respond to the music’s urgency just as well. A few audible sniffs attest to the violinist’s commitment, his rich warm tone colours gracing the slow movement with admirable shading, and equally refined subtleties in both left and right hand not least when Dumay lessens his vibrato speed. This is deeply felt playing, and with some deft slides in the finale both men give Brahms time to breathe, and never harry the line. Indeed their view, throughout, is leisurely and unhurried, and this is consistently true of the first two sonatas, where they operate on their own time zone. Those who are familiar with some of those great sonata cycles from the past Suk and Katchen, Goldberg and Balsam, Shumsky and Hambro, Grumiaux himself with Sebk, Kogan and Mytnik to cite just five will certainly be aware of a tendency toward refined expansiveness in this Dumay-Lortie set. What they manage to do for much of the time, though, is to marry broadness of tempo with strongly sculpted incident. Transitions are prepared for with scrupulous attention to detail but the results never feel microscopically surveyed. The Sonata in A is probably the most difficult of the three to project but Dumay’s solution is very slightly to broaden the finale, thus giving it a more robust character than one often finds, the better to draw consonance with the opening movement. Its genial qualities are not stinted either, though Erica Morini with Balsam - took a more lithe approach to this sonata’s geniality.

These considerations apply in large part to the final sonata, in D minor, which opens with a long-breathed, seamlessly bowed approach to the first movement. Dumay’s first movements throughout are unusually slow. He doesn’t indulge the slow movement, knowing far better than to was te expressive energy where it’s least needed, the result being dignified and nobly done. Lortie is an admirable partner here, the finale being up to tempo and the music emerging strongly agitated, much of which is due to Lortie’s rhythmically flexible playing. As an envoi there’s the declamatory Scherzo from the FAE sonata where there’s lovely lyricism in the playing of the B section.

The notes quote Dumay but also his reported speech conveys a few brief thoughts about his approach to, and admiration for Brahms. The notes about the music are perfectly fine. That applies too to the recorded sound.

Dumay has recorded the sonatas before in two cycles with Pires and with Broff. To appreciate this sonata cycle with Louis Lortie best you need to surrender to their concept of phrasal breadth allied to particularities of detailing. It’s an approach that is full of communicative warmth, irresistible lyricism, and often a kind of serenity. In a marketplace saturated with recordings of the three sonatas it seems to stand apart. My own tastes lead me to Suk, or to Goldberg, or pre-war Szigeti in Op.108, but it is salutary to hear a recording that makes one listen at a slightly different pace and to hear detail, often as if for the first time.

Jonathan Woolf