Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Sonata No. 1 in G major for Violin and Piano, Op. 78 (1879) [21:40]
Sonata No. 2 in A major for Violin and Piano, Op. 100 (1886) [16:25]
Sonata No. 3 in D minor for Violin and Piano, Op. 108 (1886-88) [18:22]
Stephan Schardt (violin)
Philipp Vogler (piano)
rec. May 2015, Konzerthaus der Abtei Marienmünster

Stephan Schardt was first violin with Musica Antiqua Köln between 2000 and 2005 and is an experienced player whose forte remains in the performance of older music. His sonata partner since 2008 has been Philipp Vogler. Together they have cooked up a disc that will strike fear into the hearts of romanticists.

Schardt and Vogler’s own booklet note introduces their principles, which I will crudely summarise as: 1. Pick the right instruments and 2. Pick the right tempo and stick to it. This is a ‘historically informed’ performance insofar as Schardt uses all-uncovered gut strings – though he actually plays on a Viennese fiddle of 2004. Vogler plays on a Viennese model, a Johann Baptist Streicher piano of 1847. Schardt has listened to Joachim’s 78rpm discs, if that matters. The main thought here seems to have been to attend to Brahms’ polyrhythms, to allow the music to dance naturally – drawing on the music’s inherent affiliations with dance rhythms - and to reduce agogics to a minimum. The result is a sequence of the fastest performances of Brahms’ sonatas I have ever heard and probably the fastest ever recorded.

Speed isn’t everything. Sometimes it’s not even anything but tempo relations, as they are encoded in this music, must surely count for something, an observation that this duo would dismiss – and do dismiss. That is the basis on which these performances are predicated. They seem to be bringing the dictates of some recordings and performances of Baroque performance practice to bear on these sonatas. The result is militant rigidity. Of true ebb and flow, real rubato, there is little to be heard. Imperceptible relaxations ensure a tempo giusto which is followed with kamikaze self-confidence. Ritardandos are fractionally employed, but second subjects are driven through. The slow movement of the G major, for example, is gawkily short-breathed and unfeeling, the accompanying figures in the ensuing finale sounding robotic.

So it goes. No amabile (as instructed) infects the stern, inflexible dogmatism of the opening of the A major and the tempo for the Andante tranquillo is desperately unrelieved. The D minor is similarly treated to a show of repressive single-tempo compression. Its slow movement goes for nothing. It’s rather as if the two musicians have decided, a priori, never to uncoil. It would be interesting to know if they truly believe that what they’re doing is in any way Brahmsian. It’s all very well to cite a letter from the composer to Joachim in which he complains of exaggerations but he’s also known to have objected to over-fast tempi – something this duo conveniently and yet knowingly ignores.

I can almost guarantee you’ve never heard performances like these, which I suppose is a recommendation of sorts. As for me, I’ll go back to comfortable, complacent, maudlin Suk, Grumiaux, Kogan, Goldberg and so many others.

Jonathan Woolf

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