BRAHMS: Complete Piano and Violin = 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 – Daniel Gaede, violin / Xuesu Liu, piano – Tacet 193, 69:35 [Distr. by Naxos] ****:
The three Brahms violin sonatas present a study in contrasts even if the first two are closer in character to one another than to the third. Both major-key sonatas are primarily lyrical, while the Third is more dramatic, with a last movement that represents one of the composer’s fieriest. That said, the First—written in 1878 while Brahms was on a working vacation at Pörtschach, Austria—has its darker moments and associations, especially in the slow movement, which starts gently enough only to turn starkly serious in its middle section, a funeral march that reflects Brahms’s sense of loss, first of his longtime friend the composer Franz von Holstein and eventually of the Schumanns’ son Felix. The youngest of the Schumann children, Felix was born the year of his father’s final breakdown. Schumann pointedly suggested that his son be named in honor of Felix Mendelssohn. Sadly, like his namesake, Felix Schumann died young, aged 25.
This immanent loss weighed on Brahms’s mind as he wrote the second movement, and it must have colored the last movement, where the composer introduces one of his own songs, Regenlied (“Rain Song”), which gives the sonata its nickname, Rain Sonata. The song, based on a poem by German poet Klaus Groth, is a sad remembrance of youth brought on by the falling rain. The dotted rhythm through which Brahms painted the falling raindrops figure into the finale, as does the minor-key setting of the song, but then the sweet-tempered first theme of the slow movement returns, leading to a radiant finish in which Brahms seems to resolve his thoughts of loss into glowing, bittersweet nostalgia.
The Second Sonata, one of Brahms’s sunniest chamber pieces, was written during another working holiday, this one at Thun in 1886, and was occasioned, according to the notes by Jan Reichow, by a visit from his friend, the young singer Hermine Spies. Brahms tried out two new and unpublished songs with her during her visit, and these influenced the melodies of this most melodious of sonatas. As Reichow notes, the Third Sonata followed not too long after and was indeed conceived at the same time as the Second Sonata and the equally lyrical Second Cello Sonata, Op. 99. As happened with Brahms’s first two string quartets, the Second and Third Sonatas contrast in stark terms that can’t be explained by circumstances but rather by the way Brahms thought creatively, a thought process that gave birth to the sunny Second Symphony following the heaven-storming First.
One of the best things about this recording from Daniel Gaede and Xuesu Liu is the success with which the musicians capture the points of comparison and even greater contrast among the works. It’s obvious these are performances crafted quite individually to reflect the character of each work. So whether heard together or singly, the sonatas make a very satisfying listening experience here. Hamburg-born Gaede has a big and vibrant tone that makes his performance of the Third Sonata especially commanding. Xuesu Liu, who studied both in her native China and in Berlin, has an equally strong presence and shapes the accompaniments with a fine appreciation of her role, whether in support of the violin or in declamatory passages where the piano takes center stage. My only criticism is that I’ve heard both more presto and more agitato treatments of Brahms’s passionate Presto agitato finale of the Third Sonata, and they’ve frankly pleased me more. But with excellent recorded sound from Tacet (present enough to catch many of the violinist’s intakes of breath), this CD is certainly a contender in the Brahms sonata sweepstakes. Recommended.
— Lee Passarella
BRUCKNER: Symphony No. 9 – Eduard van Beinum – Pristine Audio
A historic rendering of Bruckner’s 9th