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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
The Five Sonatas for Violin and Piano - Volume 2
Violin Sonata Op. 120 No. 2 (originally for clarinet and piano) (1894) [21:48]
Violin Sonata No.2 in A major, Op. 100 (1886) [21:52]
Violin Sonata No.3 in D minor, Op. 108 (1886-1888) [23:29]
Ulf Wallin (violin)
Roland Pöntinen (piano)
rec. 2017, Studio Acusticum, Piteå, Sweden
BIS BIS-2419 SACD [67:12]

This is the second volume of Brahms’ Violin Sonatas and Sonata arrangements by Ulf Wallin and Roland Pöntinen. These two musicians made their first duo-recording for Bis in 1991. They have produced acclaimed recital discs ranging from Schumann and Liszt to Alfred Schnittke, by way of Schoenberg and Hindemith.

The first volume, which has not been reviewed yet by MusicWeb International, contained the sublime First Sonata, Op.78 as well as the arrangement of the First Clarinet Sonata, Op.120 No.2 as well as the scherzo from the ‘FAE’ Sonata. Wallin and Pöntinen previously recorded all five for Arte Nova, released back in 1998. Pöntinen was also the pianist for Martin Fröst’s very well regarded account of the clarinet sonatas (BIS SACD1353). There are therefore great credentials for this new disc, which I’m delighted to say, has a splendid photograph of a benign-looking Brahms in his later days. The rather gloomy photos of the two artists are in the booklet in English and German.

The present disc opens with the Sonata No. 2 in E flat major, Op. 120, composed in 1894 for clarinet and transcribed for violin a year later. As the clarinet part extends further down than the lowest note on the violin, Brahms made considerable revisions to the clarinet part. These entailed changes in the piano part, and consequently the printing of a new piano score. This is the third arrangement of this work that I’ve reviewed in the past few days. Other versions were transcriptions for cello and viola. I’ve grown to like this, the last work composed by Brahms, greatly. The present version seems to be the best amongst a very strong field of choices. The playing and, sound which as usual with Bis is superb, is rich, romantic and sumptuous and very much to my taste. Briefly sampling their earlier recording by streaming it seems that they have taken on a more sensuous and romantic approach in the intervening twenty years. They clearly love these works and the wistful end of the first movement Allegro amabile is very poignant. They attack the appropriately titled Allegro appassionato with fire when required before the reflective mood comes in. Brahms was a fine pianist and this is a work for two equals. The playing by Roland Pöntinen matches that of his violin colleague. Appropriately the Andante con moto comprises a set of variations; it is a gorgeous movement if they take their time over it. There’s some double-stopping by Wallin which recalls the “Violin Concerto” of 1878. The ending is strong and it will be interesting to hear the original version for clarinet which I have, amongst several versions, by Gervase de Peyer and Daniel Barenboim (Classics For Pleasure). However, based on this splendid rendition, I have no difficulty in accepting this as a genuine Violin Sonata.

This successful transcription is followed by the second and third violin sonatas, in A major and D minor respectively. Both works were composed in the summer of 1886 during a productive time by Lake Thun, in Switzerland’s Bernese Oberland. Turreted Thun Castle, from the 1100s, stands on a hill above the old town. It has sweeping views of the Alps. The A major, Op. 100 work shows the sunny side of Brahms’s personality as opposed to his darker and occasionally gruff persona. The tripping pizzicato in the middle of the transcendent second movement Andante tranqillo-Vivace-Andante is most effective. The final movement has a yearning aspect which is like a sonata equivalent of the slow movement of Symphony No. 4. This is intimate chamber music and Wallin and Pöntinen seem ideal companions. I won’t be abandoning my longstanding favourite of Josef Suk and Julius Katchen (Decca) but am delighted to have a fine digital recording. How good too, to have suitable pauses between the works which gave me time to reflect before concentrating on the next.

Violin Sonata No.3 in D minor, Op. 108 is altogether deeper than its predecessors and whilst I love Op. 78 very much will concede that this is the culmination of Brahms’ genius in the genre. This is a very sensitive and well played performance with just the right amount of angst and pathos in the Adagio second movement. The technical aspects of the work are very apparent but can be enjoyed without getting too intricate. The first movement has the violin developing the main theme using alternately stopped and open strings on the same note; a technique known as “bariolage”. I wondered if it had been written for Joachim, dedicatee of the Concerto, but it is actually dedicated to Brahms' friend and colleague, German conductor, virtuoso pianist, and composer of the Romantic era Hans von Bülow (1830-1894). It was first performed in Budapest in 1888 with Jenő Hubay (1858-1937) on violin and Brahms at the piano. For the only time in the three Sonatas there is a fourth movement. The Scherzo is not what one might think It plays melancholically with its motifs of thirds and a striking opening rhythm. It just ends, almost apologetically. The final movement starts attacca and, after a stormy and passionate start, there is an exquisite elegiac quality; darkness and light in equal quantities. These performers certainly illustrate the depth of this work which I feel I may have overlooked previously although I’m sure that I’ve enjoyed hearing it live. It ends a highly successful recital.

The past few days have been fully immersed in late Brahms’ chamber music and has been a memorable experience. This set of sonatas strikes me as very successful. It would be lovely to have the opportunity to hear Volume 1 and further discs from this highly talented and dedicated duo.

David R Dunsmore

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