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Johannes BRAHMS (1833 – 1897)
Sonata for Violin and Piano Op. 120 No.1 [21:51]
Sonata for Violin and Piano Op. 120 No.2 [19:47]
(Arranged by Brahms from his Clarinet Sonatas Op.120)
Ernö DOHNÁNYI (1877-1960)
Sonata for Violin and Piano Op. 21 [19:06]
Jenna Sherry (violin) & Dániel Lőwenberg (piano)
Rec. 2018 (Dohnányi), 2020 (Brahms), BMC Studio Budapest, Hungary.
BMC CD295 [60:04]

Brahms’s two clarinet sonatas exist also in the composer’s well-known versions for viola, and are cherished by both clarinettists and violists and much recorded. But after his viola versions Brahms also made these versions for violin, so two duo sonatas became six, and all in 1894-5. These violin versions are practically forgotten; Ivor Keys’s book on the whole of Brahms‘s musical output refers only to “Op.120 - Two Sonatas for Clarinet (or Viola)”. Their neglect is presumably explained by the fact that violinists already have three great and original Brahms sonatas for their instrument which show the violin in all its glory, and these versions of Op.120 do not always do that. The works spend much time in the middle and lower registers, where the clarinet is so rich but the violin is denied its typical soaring brilliance, and they are apparently awkward to play at times. Brahms does though add some double-stopping and makes some slight adjustments to the piano part.

Nonetheless there is rather more than curiosity value to these pieces. The melancholy mellowness familiar from much late Brahms is still there, and slightly different in feeling even from the viola versions. In the wistful Andante un poco adagio of the F minor work the clarinet or viola gives us the tender feeling of someone looking back over a rich, long but now declining life, while the violin suggests a child affected by the same mood in their parent. That sense of sharing without fully partaking, of not having the ‘adult coloration’ in the fiddle’s voice that the deeper-toned instruments possess, adds a poignancy perhaps not available to them. So while this version’s losses are obvious, and the gains rather more elusive, some gains are there. Brahms would hardly have troubled with a third version if he did not think it would be musically and emotionally valid. And in a movement like the Vivace finale to the First Sonata, the violin’s flexibility, unimpeded by any need to match breathing to the musical phrase, has its benefits.

Jenna Sherry sounds convinced by the music and is convincing in her playing of it. Her tone (or maybe her instrument) is not the richest in the lower parts of the score, but her intonation is true and her feeling for Brahms’s particular kind of sombre poetry sure. In the Second Sonata she certainly finds the amabile charm of the first movement’s second theme. She generally adopts tempi which reflect those of most clarinettists in their versions, which are steady and suitable for the meditative character of the E flat sonata’s three movements, especially the first and third. Her accompanist Dániel Lőwenberg – or ‘fellow duettist’ might be a better term for the contribution of Brahms’s ripe piano writing to these works – is much more than supportive. He is impressive throughout, especially in the Allegro appassionato of the central movement of the Second Sonata, where the passion is as much his as the violinist’s at times.

Dohnányi, born in 1877, is a sort of ‘descendant’ of Brahms musically, but his Violin Sonata of 1912 shows plenty of individual character. If its subtle, confiding opening has some connection to late Brahms, the three-movements-in-one cyclic sonata form derives from the B minor Piano Sonata of Dohnányi’s Hungarian compatriot, Franz Liszt. At first this seems an ideal companion to the Brahms pieces because much is in the lower register of the violin, but there is a quicksilver, chameleon quality to the middle section which sounds all Dohnányi’s own, as does the piano writing. Jenna Sherry is a fine advocate for this sonata, and plays especially beautifully in the tender, valedictory music that closes the work. That third section - there are three separate tracks on the disc but the work plays continuously – makes a satisfying conclusion to a well-planned and well-played disc. The useful booklet notes are especially good in elucidating the form of the Dohnányi work, and the sound is clear and ideally balanced between the instruments. A most welcome issue, one liable to spend time in my CD player rather than staying on the shelf. And if ever friends visit me again post-pandemic, I will have a quiz item for them in those Brahms arrangements.

Roy Westbrook

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