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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Viola Sonata No. 1 in F minor, Op. 120 No. 1 [23:03]
Viola Sonata No. 2 in E flat major, Op. 120 No. 2 [20:22]
Two songs for contralto with viola obbligato, Op. 91 [11:27]
Lise Berthaud (viola), Éric Le Sage (piano), Sarah Laulan (alto)
rec. 2019, La Belle Saison de Coulommiers, France
B RECORDS LBM023 [54:00]

This live recital forms volume five of at least 6 CDs of Brahms’ chamber music. It appears to be the first to appear on MusicWeb International. Both Éric Le Sage and Lise Berthaud have distinguished reputations and their recordings have been reviewed here.

Brahms’ works for viola are from his Indian summer years. He had retired from composition in his late fifties when he heard Richard Mühlfeld, the principal clarinettist of the Meiningen Orchestra. The result was the Clarinet Quintet Op. 115 (1891). He followed the Quintet with the Clarinet Trio (1891) as well as the sonatas for clarinet and piano (1894). On the basis of being paid twice for the same work Brahms went on to make arrangements for viola of all these works. Brahms arranged the Quintet for string quartet and solo viola, the trio reworked for viola, cello and piano, and versions for viola and piano of the op. 120 sonatas. These seem to be the most successful of the arrangements and there are a fair number of recordings of these of which my favourite is the masterful combination of Pinchas Zukerman (viola) and Daniel Barenboim (piano) in a useful mid-price set on DG with the three violin sonatas and the “FAE” Sonata.

The present CD comes in a convenient digibox with photos of the three performers. Unusually, instead of a conventional booklet, there is a poster, folded with the same photos, larger on one side and notes in French and English on the other side. The notes by Jean-François Boukobza are in small type on a dark purple background which makes them difficult to read. He wonders if it’s because these sonatas are Brahms’s last chamber pieces or due to the viola’s specific timbre that the two works mirror their composer’s secret and profound nature. I consider them, in this format as quintessential Brahms. Ironically, because he studied Haydn’s string quartets, Brahms’ three efforts are amongst his less successful offerings.

The Viola Sonata in F minor, Op. 120 No. 1 opens with shades of doubts and a wistful melody. The work brightens during the four movements. The rapport between Le Sage and Berthaud is very apparent and compares very favourably with that between Barenboim and Zukerman. There is no hint of audience noise during the work and the deserved applause comes as a surprise. The recording is entirely in accord with the music and performance. Having just enjoyed hearing these works transposed to a cello there is no doubt that the viola is more appropriate. The ending of the first movement is enchanting. These may be late works but as with almost all Brahms, there is a pervasive air of unease with a pensive atmosphere in the second movement. This recalls Schubert’s second Piano Trio D929; beautiful limpid playing from both. The final movement works despite being written for the clarinet. It is quite stormy in places. This is a work which I’m beginning to love greatly but I will return to its original guise with Gervase de Peyer and Daniel Barenboim on Classics for Pleasure.

The Viola Sonata in E flat Major, Op. 120 No. 2 may be Brahms bidding adieu to chamber music; not that this is any obstacle to all the components that make his music so special being here in abundance. Just hearing a few seconds is enough to be certain that this is top quality Brahms. In his review of the version from Shlomo Mintz (viola) and Itamar Golan (piano) on Avie, Michael Cookson refers to the opening Allegro amabile as being “a masterpiece of seamless construction [with] a gentle feminine quality”. The present duo are in full command and understanding of the work’s timbres. What also strikes me is the equality present; these are sonatas for piano and viola as much as the other way round. The Scherzo illustrates that despite impending old age there was still fire in the “Red Hedgehog” as he was sometimes known. The second melody is so plaintive that it’s impossible not to be moved. The Sonata concludes with a charming andante con moto in the form of a theme and variations, in which, only one variation is in a quicker tempo. It is played thoughtfully, expressively and the effect is very moving as Brahms says goodbye. The tragic veil that pervaded over works such as the First Piano Concerto may have subsided somewhat but this is still very much the same composer. Slightly distant applause follows after a discreet pause.

As an encore Sarah Laulan joins the duo for Two songs for contralto with viola obbligato, Op. 91. They were composed for the composer’s friend Joseph Joachim, the violinist and dedicatee of the “Violin Concerto” and his wife Amalie. I know very little of Brahms’ Lieder, although I recognised the melody of the second song, which is from a Medieval Christmas Carol “Joseph, lieber Joseph mein”, a reference to Joseph Joachim. The carol is perhaps better known as “In dulce jubilo” and was made popular by Mike Oldfield. It is utterly beguiling and very well sung. I have recordings somewhere by Kathleen Ferrier and Ann Murray.

During recent months I have had the joy of hearing a great deal of Brahms and this has confirmed his love for Bach. These songs with viola obbligato are reminiscent of some of the cantatas. The songs make a lovely end to this very satisfying recital. I hope that the other volumes in this series will become available for review. On the strength of this excellent disc, they will be well worth hearing.

David R Dunsmore

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