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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Violin Sonata No 1 in G major, Op 78 (1879) [27:55]
Violin Sonata No 2 in A major, Op 100 (1886) [20:25]
Violin Sonata No 3 in D minor, Op 108 (1888) [21:37]
Henryk Szeryng (violin)
Arthur Rubinstein (piano)
rec. December 1960 (1 and 2) and December 1960-January 1961 (3), American Academy of Arts and Letters, New York City
PARNASSUS PACL95005 [69:46]

Henryk Szeryng and Arthur Rubinstein first met in Mexico in the 1950s. Mutual admiration led to a series of sonata recordings and also collaboration with Pierre Fournier in the trio repertoire, which took in elite renditions of Schubert, Schumann and Brahms. Their Beethoven sonata recordings have always been critically esteemed, something that applies too in the case of the three Brahms sonatas recorded in December 1960 and very early January 1961.

Though there were many years between them, the rapport established by the Polish musicians is palpable throughout. There’s an unforced lyricism and necessary grace in the phrasing and even when Rubinstein seems the more assertive Brahmsian, Szeryng’s subtlety of inflexion, colour and bowing almost always matches him. The opening movement of the G major is certainly taken at a rather sedate tempo, somewhat more on the side of the qualifying ‘ma non troppo’ than the Vivace it modifies. The original producer was the famed Max Wilcox and he ensures that even when the pianist is playing out he doesn’t cover Szeryng, though there are one or two instances where he comes close to doing so. The slow movement is warmly textured, and the moderato nature of the finale is taken at face value. Some (myself included) may consider this somewhat devitalised – the young Josef Suk and Josef Hála were certainly zestier in their 1956 recording (Supraphon SU 4075-2). But that was a mono recording, the famous Suk-Katchen following a decade or so later, and the Szeryng-Rubintein are certainly consistent in their approach to the G major.

The other sonatas are more conventionally paced. There’s a full quotient of colour and vibrato speed from the violinist in the central movement of the A major sonata and in the finale both musicians refrain from pushing the tempo beyond that demanded of them. There’s a real sense of give and take and rhythmic motion. The D minor slows eloquently and there is, in Szeryng’s playing, a rare kind of serenity. The slow movement doesn’t become unbalanced because of undue expressive intensity but resolves the music’s lyric melancholy appropriately, whilst the finale is both engaging and exciting, though never in danger of breaking speed barriers.

In this cycle, the sonatas emerge as pieces of increasing weight, not necessarily in terms of length – the G major is by some way the longest – but in terms of expressive candour.

You can currently find all three Brahms sonatas on Documents 600451, an inexpensive 10-CD box called ‘Henrik Szeryng - Milestones of a Legend’ (the spelling of his first name is Documents’, not mine). It also includes their recording of three Beethoven sonatas, Nos 5, 8 and 9, Szeryng’s complete Bach solo Sonatas and Partitas and much else.

Parnassus’ digital restorations are fine and there’s a good booklet to go with them.

Jonathan Woolf

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