This is a marvelous two-disc set that contains all of the commonly-played “viola” pieces by Brahms. Of course, we know that he wrote no pieces for viola specifically, though he did indeed insist that all of these works could and should be played on the instrument, going so far as to make arrangements himself for each work here except for the Violin Sonata 1 (arranged here with great sensitivity by Rysanov). I must confess that I was initially a little put off at the idea of hearing the Horn Sonata played on a viola–that thing is so replete with “hunting” motives and sounds that I could not imagine hearing it otherwise. But I must admit, after hearing the incredible tone and virtuosity of Rysanov that he completely sells the piece, and this one is as scampering and frisky as any I know. This does not mean that I could recommend it over a “normal” reading with horn–far from it. But as a part of this collection it is fully worthy of inclusion and quite satisfying to hear.
The Violin Sonata in G is another piece that you might question, but then again Rysanov’s arrangement is so idiomatic and mechanically construed to the mechanisms of the viola that there is really little to argue about. And interpretatively is so on par with the spirit of Brahms that one can only sit back and revel in the performance. Besides, years ago Isaac Stern actually co-opted one of the Clarinet/Viola sonatas for his own use in a recording of great substance, so one can hardly complain when the tide is turned. The two canonical “Viola” sonatas are presented here with a rich, ornate tonal quality that is simply perfect for Brahms. We are dealing with the last pieces he was to compose, and it takes a special feeling of interpretative largesse to fully bring out all of the melancholy and pathetic elements of this music. Rysanov knows this, and acts accordingly, with an interpretation that I think only falls short of Pinchas Zukerman’s sizzling readings on RCA.
Lastly, the Clarinet Trio with the viola as substitute works easily. Thought this work and the more popular Clarinet Quintet were premiered on the same day, Brahms preferred the more concise and less expansive drama of the Trio. The tonal qualities of the viola are not as far removed from the clarinet as they are from the horn, and one really doesn’t miss the presence of the woodwind instrument in this piece, played here to perfection, and completing a fabulous set that belongs in the collection of every Brahms lover – surely one of the prizes of the year.
— Steven Ritter
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