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Johannes BRAHMS (1833 - 1897)
CD 1 [77:35]
Sonata in F minor for clarinet/viola and piano, op. 120 no. 1 [21:35]
Violin Sonata no. 1 in G Major op. 78 (arr. viola Klengel, Rysanov) [26:34]
Trio in E flat major for horn/viola, violin and piano op. 40 [28:16]
Maxim Rysanov (viola); Katya Apekisheva (piano); Boris Brovstyn (violin)
CD 2 [47:09]
Sonata in E flat major for clarinet/viola and piano, op. 120 no. 2 [21:35]
Trio in A minor for clarinet/viola, cello and piano op. 114 () [25:29]
Maxim Rysanov (viola); Jacob Katnelson (piano); Kristine Blaumane (cello)
rec. Gnessin College of Music, Moscow, October 2007 (CD1); Slabodkin Center Music Hall, Moscow January/May 2008 (CD2)
ONYX CLASSICS ONYX 4033 [77:35 + 47:09]

Experience Classicsonline

This two CD set is a collection of Brahms' chamber works in versions for or transcribed for viola. It is performed here by the young and very talented Maxim Rysanov, winner of the prestigious 2008 Classic FM Gramophone Young Artist of the Year. Four of the five works were originally written for clarinet, and were inspired by Brahms' friendship with the clarinettist Richard Muhlfeld, which flourished late in the composer's life. The fifth is the Trio (Op. 40) originally for horn (here viola), violin and piano, which is a considerably earlier work.

The CD 1 opens with the first of the two Sonatas making up Op. 120, for clarinet / viola and piano. Its companion is found opening the second of the two discs. They were written in the aftermath of bereavement - the death of two close friends of the composer. Each has a melancholy atmosphere. The first, in F minor, is passionate but edgy in mood and tone. The exception is in the graceful and very slow Andante which comprises its second movement. The music then metaphorically rouses itself and returns to a mood of restless and nervous energy. The Vivace finale is characterised by a bell-like tolling motif, reiterating the mood of loss and mourning. Although the viola is in the foreground, Katya Apekisheva on piano deserves commendation too. Her playing, subtle and always appropriate, balances the strings but never overshadows them. In the second sonata, the piano part is taken by Jacob Katsnelson, who takes a slightly more prominent role in this more tranquil and lyrical work: Brahms' final contribution to the repertoire of chamber music.

This work is followed by another sonata, a transcription for viola - to which Rysanov has himself contributed in the details of the arrangement - of Violin Sonata no. 1 in G major, Op. 78. This is one of a series of three violin sonatas composed for Joseph Joachim and contemporaneous with the Violin Concerto. It is nicknamed "Regenlied" - "The Rain Song" due to the similarity of its rhythm to the pattering of raindrops. This analogy is clearly brought out in this performance. The work is also described as "an idyll under cloudy skies". Clara Schumann was fond of the piece and wished its last movement to "accompany her in her journey from here into the next world".

The last of the three works on the first disc is a trio in E flat, Op. 40. This is from much earlier in the composer's output and the only work here not to be in sonata form. Here instead of a transposition of writing for clarinet, it is the horn for which the viola is substituted. This work is contemporaneous with the German Requiem, both being written shortly after the death of the composer's mother. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it is predominantly sorrowful - especially the mesto slow (third) movement. This is relieved only by the finale, a hunting scene perhaps inspired by walking in the Black Forest where this work was written. However, it has a very characteristically Brahmsian sound - echoing the second and third symphonies as well as the German Requiem. It is in some ways more straightforward for the listener than the sequence of very late works which make up the backbone of this recording. In this way it serves to refresh the ear and anchor one's listening experience.

The second disc of the pair is more homogeneous than the first, containing two works both from the late series inspired by Richard Muhlfeld: the second of the Op. 120 Sonatas (q.v.) - Brahms' final chamber work - and an A minor trio, Op. 114, for clarinet/viola, cello and piano. The trio is, perhaps understandably, better known in its original form, but it is interesting to hear this variation. The viola's part in the Trio is pretty much a straightforward transcription of the original clarinet part, whereas in arranging the Op. 120 sonatas, Brahms gave them more work to create a new character with the new instrumentation.

Maxim Rysanov is originally from the Ukraine but is now based in London. He has also recorded a disc featuring both the Kancheli concerto Styx and John Tavener's The Myrrh Bearer - a Gramophone Editor's choice. There is another highly recommended disc of Bach chamber works, with the cellist Torleif Thedéen and the violinist Janine Jensen. Whilst continuing his career as a soloist, he appears as a conductor. He has forthcoming British concerts with the Britten Sinfonia and with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra. Further details are on his own website,

The other players, who are all very distinguished multiple prize-winners in their own rights, play their own respective parts skilfully and commendably. In particular, Kristine Blaumane's cello in the Op. 114 Trio is a pleasure in itself.

The disc is perhaps of most interest to those wishing to approach Brahms' chamber repertoire with thoroughness, although these transcriptions are perfectly pleasant to listen to. Three of these works were composed specifically for a great clarinettist and although Brahms was persuaded by his publisher that providing an alternative part for viola would give them a wider appeal, he was not entirely happy with the result. These transcriptions are not entirely unproblematic but the playing of them here is superb. This set serves to showcase a remarkable performer whose playing has been favourably compared with that of Yuri Bashmet in his youth. He is definitely someone to look out for and reviewing this disc has whetted my appetite to his other recordings.

Julie Williams

see also review by Philip Borg-Wheeler
(February Recording of the Month)







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