BRAHMS Violin Sonatas. Suk/Katchen (Decca) – INKPOT
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Violin Sonata No. 1 in G major, Op. 78
Violin Sonata No. 2 in A major, Op. 100
Violin Sonata No. 3 in D minor, Op. 108
JOSEF SUK violin
JULIUS KATCHEN piano
DECCA Legends 466 393-2
Sometimes arranged marriages in music turn out famously. As part of its marathon project to record all of Brahms’ piano music with pianist Julius Katchen, Decca decided to pair him with Josef Suk (grandson of the composer of the same name and great-grandson of Antonin Dvorak) in the three violin sonatas, and later with Suk and cellist Janos Starker in the piano trios. The results could easily have been a disaster, but the three artists’ personalities and musical sensibilities meshed so well that they started concertizing together. Even after Katchen’s death from cancer in 1969, Starker and Suk continued to give joint recitals with pianist Rudolf Buchbinder in an effort to continue this musical relationship.
Katchen’s playing is the glory of this disc, accentuated by recorded sound that was a model of warmth and lifelike presence in 1967 and 24-bit remastering making it more attractive than ever. With a full, robust and beautifully rounded tone, Katchen (right) plays less forcefully than in his multi-disc set of Brahms solo works, but is on no wise less than a full partner. He and Suk balance and play off of one another admirably, listening carefully to one another, fully mirroring one another’s phrasings and dynamics while finding a wealth of shadings and subtle subtext that show a deep understanding of the Brahms idiom.
What do I mean by the Brahms idiom? The emotional palette in Brahms’ works reveal more about the true complexity of the man than perhaps any other composer of the Romantic period. His music, perhaps even more than Schumann’s, is one of veiled shadows, half-lights and treacherous undercurrents. Even small modulations or changes in dynamics or tone color can herald more unexpected and sudden emotional swings, as though one cannot afford to stay comfortable in one frame of mind for very long.
The extreme delicacy with which Brahms illustrated all these moods and turnings went hand in hand with his extraordinarily fine craftsmanship and handling of musical structure. At the same time, the demands Brahms made upon himself as a composer in these regards need to be matched with like awareness and demands upon the performer. Even if you capture the basic moods of a Brahms piece, if you ignore or gloss over the subtler emotional points in the music-points as vitally important here as the notes themselves-you lose much of the emotional resonance that makes Brahms’ music what it is.
Katchen was a master of conveying this aural and emotional complexity, with Suk his interpretive equal. The waltz-like secondary theme in 2:I (beginning at 1:25 and reprised at 5:27) comes off with extreme tenderness and charm; and the episode at 3:56 of the same movement, strongly reminiscent of the “Eduard” theme in the first of the Op. 10 Ballades, has the right touch of hesitancy to add a welcome hint of mystery. The more I hear this disc, the more I am taken with it, because of all the emotive details Suk and Katchen so unerringly bring out in the music.
Suk’s playing, however, is not so unconditional to love. While his tone, though plain, can turn alluringly thick and viola-like-the double-stop passages at 3:45 of 1:III are a prime example of this-he continually plays the solo part as short groupings of notes instead of one long line, essentially belying the vocal origins of the first two sonatas. These brief phrasings make Brahms’ melodies sound as if they are being spoken rather than sung. Some listeners may appreciate that, though I found it too enunciated for my personal taste and sometimes detracted from the music rather than accentuating it. But if one can make allowances for Suk’s approach and tone (and some may have no problem with either of these things), there is still a considerable amount of pleasure to be had.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the Third Violin Sonata comes off best. Suk’s short phrasing is less of a negative here than in the first two sonatas, and his and Katchen’s continual attention to fine points make this sonata a picture book of autumnal glories-less violently passionate than some make it, but as irresistible and ever-changing as a beautiful sunset.
Suk’s phrasing in the Adagio, perhaps one of the most simple and irresistible movements Brahms penned, is extremely luscious-longer limbed than usual and as soft as a gentle caress. He and Katchen fully convey not only the veiled melancholy and bittersweet joy flitting through this music, but also a quiet and elusively chimeral quality that brings to mind two lovers in old age reliving a lifetime of shared experiences yet never having consummated their relationship-a situation very much like the composer’s long relationship with Clara Schumann. If Clara were indeed in Brahms’s mind when he wrote this musical love letter, I would not be a bit surprised
Highly recommended, even with my carping over Suk, and fully worthy of the term Decca Legend.
xxx: 2.8.2001 Jonathan Yungkans
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