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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Scherzo (from the F.A.E. Sonata) [5:36]
Violin Sonata No.3 in D minor, Op.108 [22:34] César FRANCK (1822-1890)
Violin Sonata in A [29:46]
Mélancolie for Violin and Piano [5:50]
Ana Maria Valderrama (violin)
Victor del Valle (piano)
rec. 2017, Sala Mozart, Zaragoza, Spain
Reviewed as CD stereo EUDORA EUD-SACD-1802 SACD [63:52]
The inclusion of two rarely heard miniatures by these two composers as well as an absolutely first-rate recording quality, should make this release a most attractive proposition even in the crowded market of Brahms and Franck violin sonatas. The statuesque Spanish violinist, Ana María Valderrama, is also a most enticing lure. In 2011 she became the first Spaniard to win first prize at the Pablo Sarasate International Violin Competition and has been steadily building a reputation at home and abroad since then. This recording, in which she is accompanied by her brother-in-law Victor del Valle, marks her first sustained venture on disc away from Spanish music. And very successful it is too, even if there is no disguising the fact that these two major repertory works are delivered with very strong Spanish accents.
The two major works are sandwiched between the two single-movement pieces, the first of which is the Scherzo movement Brahms wrote for the collaborative “F A E” Sonata, in which Schumann wrote the slow (second) and the final movements and Albert Dietrich the opening movement. Written as a gift for Joachim, whose acquaintance Brahms had made only a short time earlier, the letters in the title were in honour of Joachim’s personal motto – Frei aber einsam (“Free but lonely”) - and, apparently, the three composers challenged him to identify who had written each. With its surging waves of emotion and powerful cross-bar rhythms, the Scherzo has so many of the hallmarks of mature Brahms that it comes as a shock to realise that there was every chance Joachim would not have guessed the composer except by the process of elimination, for this was written when Brahms was just 20 and a couple of years before his first published chamber work. What Valderrama and Valle bring to this is a certain fiery intensity which underlines the music’s surprising maturity while breathing the very essence of youthful vigour.
That fire carries on into a very heated account of the third Violin Sonata, composed over three decades after the “F A E” Scherzo. Some might find the extremes of tempo, the almost exaggerated emotional highs and lows and the violent changes of tempo in the outer movements unsettling, but you would have to go a long way to find a more poised and restrained account of the second movement. Valderrama holds emotion at arms’ length, tantalizing in her restraint, which makes the occasional outbursts of passion and feeling all the more electrifying. It is Valle who most vividly underlines the dancing spirit of the third movement with a deliciously buoyant piano part. He is nevertheless quick to rouse to a kind of strutting arrogance as Valderrama delivers her deliciously angular chords.
The Franck Sonata, already a work in which emotion and passion are unmissable, seems to have added fire here. There is, for example (at 8:02 of the second movement), something which seems so remarkably Spanish in its tantalising animato poco a poco that I wonder it has not drawn attention to itself in previous recordings of the work. Again, there is a tendency to overstate the emotional highs and lows and to exaggerate the changes of speed and mood in all four movements, but throughout the entire performance there is a sense that these two musicians are casting the work not just in a new and unfamiliar light, but one which is very personal to them and therefore wholly convincing to us. We may disagree with some interpretative ideas – I, for one, have some difficulty coming to terms with the almost chilly improvisatory feel to the opening of the fourth movement and its subsequent dramatic rise in temperature - but nobody can doubt the sincerity and conviction which lies behind them. This is a performance which is both refreshing and extremely exciting.
After all the passion and turmoil, the final piece on the disc is a real rarity. Composed, it would seem, around the same time as the Violin Sonata, and actually Franck’s last piece of chamber music, the Mélancolie was transcribed from a solfeggio exercise. The composer often played it in private with his violinist brother, Joseph, but it was only published posthumously in 1911 and seems largely to have escaped notice by today’s violin virtuosi both in the concert hall and the recording studio. This performance exudes calm and stability with just small flurries of surging emotion, Valderrama producing some gorgeous moments of lyricism superbly balanced by some remarkably sensitive playing from Valle. A lovely performance of an unjustly overlooked gem.