BRAHMS: Viola Sonatas, in f, Op. 120/1; in E-flat, Op. 120/2; Trio in a, Op. 114 – Geraldine Walther, viola/ David Korevaar, p./ Andras Fejer, cello – MSR Classics MS 1479, 70:56 [Distr. by Albany] *****:
Wow. I’m not sure how much more I can say; I certainly wasn’t expecting this. Easily one of the best-played and recorded chamber music discs I have heard in a couple of years, and even easier one of the best recordings of the viola version of the sonatas I have even encountered.
So who are these people? Well, David Korevaar is a known quantity to me, and though I recognized the names of the viola and cello player, I couldn’t quite place them. So I went ahead and listened, as I like to not prejudice myself according to the fame or obscurity of the artist(s) in question on any recording. After being floored by the performances, I read the bios in the notes. Sure enough, Geraldine Walther was Principal Violist of the San Francisco Symphony for 29 years and now violist in the famed Takacs Quartet since 2005. Cellist Fejer is the founding member of that same glorious quartet in 1975, still with them, so his resume speaks for itself.
Walther’s playing is sensitive, highly, and I mean highly emotional, with a simply perfect Brahms sound involving all of the stereotypes of his last music—autumnal, burnished, golden—yuck! I am sure you have heard them all, though in this case the pigeonholes indeed fit the music! And this is music that should be experienced on that level. Not all of Brahms is, but this most definitely is. And though I have to admit that I still prefer the original conception for clarinet, as I think most people do, and how the composer envisioned it, it did not take long for him to thoroughly examine his own music in order to make it more widely available, with even some violinists taking it up as well (mistakenly, in my opinion, but that is another story…).
A lot of violinists play them on the viola too. In fact, my favorites to this point are those by Pinchas Zukerman and Marc Neikrug on RCA, still obtainable, with the superb and indispensable recording of the two songs for soprano with viola sung to perfection by Marilyn Horne. But I must say that I think Walther and company have topped them—these performances are that good. I won’t dispose of the Zukerman because of the Horne selections, but I could if they weren’t there. Zukerman has a fantastic tone, but Walther is better, in the end.
The Trio, also for clarinet originally, is also given a delicious performance that has the advantage of hearing the marvelous low register effects of the viola coupled with the higher cello, truly a terrific sound probably first exploited by Weber in his Oberon Overture. The players are in sync the way you would expect from an ensemble of 30 years to perform, and there are several Trios I own that will now experience retirement.
To sum up—these are great recordings, and if you don’t own them in this form, you are now required to acquire them!