BRAHMS Violin Sonatas 1, 2 & 3 – Schiff – MSR

by | Sep 15, 2011 | Classical CD Reviews

BRAHMS: 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 – Zina Schiff, violin / Cameron Grant, piano – MSR Classics 1339, 69:44 [Distr. by Albany] ****:
I always learn something from reading the notes to a recording, even if they are poorly translated or pedantic—or both. It’s often especially interesting to read notes written by the performer him- or herself, even more so when they are well written, as are Zina Schiff’s notes to the present recording. The violinist writes about the lifelong love affair of Brahms and Clara Schumann and how that seems to inform the content of Brahms’s three violin sonatas.
The First Sonata, for example, refers to two of Brahms’s songs, Regenlied (“Rain Song”) and Nachlang (“Memories”), both based on texts by the composer’s friend, the poet Klaus Groth. Other writers have called attention to the fact that when he wrote the work  in 1879, Brahms was reacting to a double loss, first the death of his close friend Franz von Holstein, and second, the impending death of the Schumanns’ youngest child, Felix. This is reflected in the funeral march of the second movement. Thoughts of Brahms’s old friend and of Felix would of course have returned him to the days of his youth, and these thoughts seem to spill over into the last movement with its apt reference to Regenlied, a poem in which the speaker plunges into sad memories of his early days brought on by the falling rain. Schiff, however, notes that Regenlied was Clara’s favorite song, and that the memories Brahms was revisiting in his sonata were about Clara; thus the sonata represents “Brahms’ irrepressible need to communicate his love. . . .”
Schiff goes on to examine the Third Sonata of 1888 as another love letter from Brahms to Clara, one that provoked real love letters—at least as close to love letters as two people can get who decided many years earlier to sublimate their feelings for each other. Schiff quotes Clara as writing Brahms, “I marveled at the way everything is interwoven, like fragrant tendrils on a vine. I loved very much indeed. . .the third movement, which is like a beautiful girl frolicking with her lover—then suddenly, in the middle of it all, a deep passion, only to make way for sweet dalliance once more.” To which that old bear of a man Brahms replied, “It is really too lovely and delightful to think of my D minor sonata flowing gently and dreamily beneath your fingers. I laid it on my desk and in my thoughts wander gently with you. . .I know no greater pleasure than this.”
I take time to mention all this, of course, because Zina Schiff’s assessment of the influences on the sonatas is central to her interpretation of them. And, indeed, from the beginning of the first movement of Sonata No. 1, you can hear a tender, restrained longing behind the notes, which in turn helps illuminate the passionate outbursts that erupt in the First and especially the Third Sonatas. That feeling of longing, that still burning passion, can be explained by reference to one love, one loss. Zina Schiff has the emotional equipment to convey her reading of these works. I’ve taken real pleasure in her bold, Romantic approach to the violin music of Ernest Bloch (Naxos 8557757), and here we have the same ripe, emotionally charged music-making. Schiff was a pupil of Heifetz, so it’s surprising to note that her playing doesn’t really recall the stainless-steel perfection of her teacher’s playing—technically without stain but also emotionally cool, even cold sometimes. Instead, Schiff’s big throaty violin tone is wielded in the service of big emotions. There’s sometimes a “tear” in her playing, a barely discernible slide between notes that Heifetz wouldn’t have allowed himself, I think.
Schiff’s technique isn’t as utterly impeccable as her teacher’s, but to me her playing sounds both fuller of tone and bigger of heart. Oddly, the one place where I think Schiff miscalculates the emotional weight of the music is in the second movement of Sonata No. 1, which she takes at too fast a tempo, with phrases that are somewhat clipped—not right, of course, for a funeral march, if that’s what Brahms intended, but also not weighty enough for whatever airing of the passions this movement might represent.
Zina Schiff has a very fine accompanist in Cameron Grant, solo pianist with the New York City Ballet and chamber music specialist. I think his conception of these works is not quite as emotionally charged as hers—there’s somewhat more restraint in his playing. But neither do their approaches to the music clash, and Grant’s somewhat cooler approach may give the performances the musical ballast they need. At any rate, the pair work naturally together. They receive a nicely intimate recording as well. I’m glad to have been able to hear more of Zina Schiff, and I warmly recommend this latest effort.
—Lee Passarella