Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Sonata No.1 for Viola and Piano in F minor, Op.120 No.1 (1894) [23:57]
Sonata No.2 for Viola and Piano in E flat major, Op.120 No.2 (1894) [22:39]
Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Sonata in A minor for Arpeggione and Piano, D821 (transcr. viola and piano, 1824) [27:09]
Robin Ireland (viola), Tim Horton (piano)
rec. 2012, Potton Hall, Suffolk. DDD.
NIMBUS NI6210 [74:34]
Brahms’ two late sonatas Op.120 were originally created for piano and clarinet, but the composer (albeit reluctantly) also granted them versions for piano and viola. The music looks different in new clothes, since the character of the viola differs from that of the clarinet: where the woodwind instrument is confident and calm, the string one is agitated, even nervous. Also the tone of the clarinet – dark and potent in the lower register, soft and luscious in the middle, hard and spiky on the top – was so skilfully leveraged by the composer that the viola version will always remain a step-daughter. Call it bias, but for me each recording with viola has to prove the right of this version to be counted as an independent creation and not a mere transcription.
From the very start of the First Sonata, Robin Ireland and Tim Horton throw us into stormy waters. Theirs is a mighty heroic reading of the opening movement. The piano is powerful in the low register. There is much pathos, but it is natural, and the pressure feels just right. The second movement is an expressive song whose beauty is hypnotic, yet the performance does not admit any feeling of fragility. This is a full-blooded, healthy beauty, tender yet strong. In the third movement the performers emphasize the dance side of the music, something between a minuet and a Lšndler with a nostalgic touch. The finale is lively and fiery, though a lighter piano sound would suit it better. The balance of the instruments is good, but the piano sounds a bit heavy. Sudden applause at the end reminds us that this is a live recording in front of exceptionally quiet "selected audience". They were probably selected on the base of their health.
I sense restraint in the first movement of Schubert’s Arpeggione. The approach is leisurely, more about singing than dancing. Maybe I am just too used to the contrast between the singing first subject and the dancing second, but when I hear the infectious second theme I don’t get the urge to boogie. The piano tone is evenly beautiful but there's some strain accumulating in the viola voice towards the end of the movement, and in the middle there are some moments of monotony. The slow movement is a sweet nocturne, and the violist handles these long notes very well. The music is not “thin”; there is good pressure yet without excess, full voice without hardness. The refrain part of the finale is a tad heavy, but the main episodes are light and lively. The applause comes as a surprise again, so quiet is the public during the performance. Overall, this reading is too serious. It is beautiful, but not as much fun as it could be. All is stable, all is safe, and I miss the fresh crispiness of Schubert. It’s as if Brahms wrote this one as well.
The Second Brahms' Sonata starts in eloquent and gallant style, with a Schumann-like ecstasy and passion that is both mature and sincere. The full-voiced viola makes a strong bid in the ownership dispute. In the passionate second movement the piano plays the more prominent role, and its beautiful sound, together with this muscular and resolute interpretation, bring enthralling results, with excellent drive and depth. Brahms would not be Brahms without variations, and the finale is one of such sets, tranquil and wise. The profound approach of Ireland and Horton works very well here. The performance is expressive, though once again the violist gets tired towards the end and at times loses beauty of tone, with the expressivity becoming solid hard. No such complaints about the piano, which is continually alive and engaging.
This disc contains arguably the three best works of the nineteenth century written (OK, rewritten) for the combination of viola and piano. Each work receives solid and expressive performances. The recording is close yet without discomfort. The performance shows in full light the singing beauty of the music. The contribution of the pianist is excellent. I might well return to this disc when I want to hear the viola version of the Brahms sonatas. As for the Arpeggione, I feel a certain want of elegant lightness that can bring so much to Schubert’s music. Still, it is a beautiful reading of this ever-fascinating work.