BRAHMS: Scherzo in C Minor from F-A-E Sonata; 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; Wiegenlied (arr. Lenehan), Op. 49, No. 4 – Leonidas Kavakos, violin/ Yuja Wang, piano – Decca B0020329-02, 76:42 (4-15-14) ****:
Leonidas Kavakos and Yuja Wang collaborate (27-30 December 2013) in the complete Brahms Violin Sonatas, each heavily influenced by the composer’s admiration for and friendship with Joseph Joachim (1831-1907). Prior to the conception of the formal violin sonatas, Brahms participated in a joint creative effort that included Robert Schumann and Albert Dietrich, the so-called F-A-E Sonata of 1853. The C Minor Scherzo, raucous and driven, has Kavakos and Wang in fine fettle, passionate and sonorously adept. The extraordinary violin tone – from Kavakos’ “Il Cannone” Guarneri del Gesu, once owned by Paganini – does much to ingratiate the whirlwind piece, much as it will add seamless affection to the formal sonatas themselves.
The 1879 Sonata in G Major establishes intimacy as an essential aspect of Yuja Wang’s keyboard, chamber music persona, given that she has heretofore indulged in heady, percussive, and flamboyant Romantic repertoire. After an autumnal, lyrically polished Vivace ma non troppo first movement, the atmosphere becomes poignant and palpably ruminative for the Adagio. The nicely drawn violin cantilena against Wang’s lulling then insistent block chords blends the rainy-day nostalgia against some passionate, rough-hewn sonorities that rise upwardly and then round off in double stops. Brahms marks the last movement Allegro molto moderato, investing the music with allusions to his Regenlied, Op. 59, No. 3, a tactic Clara Schumann found compelling enough to warrant her wish that “the third movement . . .accompany me into the hereafter.” If Kavakos/Wang thoughtful, limpid reading does not quite equal my preferred versions with Szigeti/Horszowski and Francescatti/ Casadesus, it still ranks high for sincere intensity of expression and stylistic fidelity.
The 1887 A Major Sonata, Op. 100, “Thun,” receives a genial treatment from Kavakos and Wang, the latter of whom enjoys her flourishes and roulades without gratuitous drama, rather sauntering and cavorting with the violin’s inflections. The work, certainly the most songful of the three sonatas, melds shyness, intensity, and rumination into its fanciful sensibility. The tempos remain alert and lyrically kinetic, rather than suffering from an influx of “profundity” that marred the tempos of the old Kremer/Afanassiev collaboration. The Andante’s various sections indulge in parlando conversations between the instruments, moving in intimations of rural nature until a light-hearted Vivace propels the music forward without having sacrificed the sense of comradeship in ensemble. The original motif recurs, Andante – Vivace, which Kavakos renders with tender love and care. An elegant legato marks the final movement, a gentle rondo that eschews bravura and histrionics. All remains subdued until a late moment of passion arises, almost an afterthought. The entire composition, often likened in its opening to Wagner’s “Prize Song” from Meistersinger, has been a bucolic and lyrical dalliance that spreads sunshine and optimism.
With the 1888 Sonata No. 3 in D Minor, Brahms appears to return to his “Hungarian” roots – via Remenyi and the Hungarian Dances – which swell with an autumnal passion and often fervent sense of longing. The first movement materials develop through a series of variation procedures, often asking bravura effects of the violin part. Wang proceeds by impassioned syncopes in octaves, then the musicians merge for some intricate counterpoint. Wang exerts a potent bass line that settles on A as pedal point before she realizes some 50 measures of quarter notes. Kavokos himself keeps a firm hand on his dynamics, choosing to extend and soften the melodic line until the whole vanishes in a misty haze of sublimated power.
The Adagio (3/8) rather treads in muted stops and starts, and some may find the duo here a bit stodgy compared to Milstein and Heifetz and their respective partners. The music evloves through repeated phrases, rising in emotive intensity until Kavakos’ double stops sail over the keyboard. No scherzo here as such, but Brahms injects Un poco e con sentimento intermezzo in F-sharp Minor that dallies flirtatiously (in D Minor and Major) between the two instruments until a fierce emotion breaks loose, at least temporarily. The finale Brahms marks 6/8 Presto agitato, and he thunders it forward most passionately. Kavakov and Wang have been waiting for this one. Our principals work up a steady, momentous heat, often galloping and throbbing in potent unison. The cascades and onrushes of intensity belie the composer’s “old bachelor” stereotype of a man resigned to life’s denials. This music resounds with virile desire, a fist’s still threatening the skies.
The ingenuous Wegenlied, played as an encore, speaks of Paradise; might it have been regained?