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Brahms: Viola II / Rysanov, Coote, Wass

Brahms / Rysanov,Maxim / Coote,Alice
Release Date: 03/08/2011 
Label:  Onyx   Catalog #: 4054  
Composer:  Johannes Brahms
Performer:  Alice CooteAshley WassMaxim RysanovAlexander Sitkovetsky,   ... 
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Stereo 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews

BRAHMS Clarinet Quintet in b (arr. for viola 1 ). String Quintet No. 2 in G 2. 2 Songs, op. 91 3 1,2,3 Maxim Rysanov, 1 Julia Deyneka (va); 1 Mariana Osipova, 2 Boris Read more Brovtsyn, 1,2 Alexander Sitkovetsky (vn); 1,2 Kristine Blaumane (vc); 3 Alice Coote (mez); 3 Ashley Wass (pn) ONYX 4054 (81:10 Text and Translation)

This is a follow-up to Maxim Rysanov’s two-disc set containing Brahms’s two clarinet sonatas and G-Major Violin Sonata in their viola versions, plus the clarinet and horn trios also in viola transcriptions, reviewed in Fanfare 32:5.

As pointed out in my review of Rysanov’s previous volume, Brahms gave his blessing to the viola substitution in his chamber works more often than one might imagine. His personal involvement in preparing the viola versions of his clarinet sonatas is well documented; beyond that, he approved the use of a viola to replace the named instruments in the clarinet and horn trios, substitutions that, for various reasons, don’t work as well as they do in the clarinet sonatas. Additionally, as Carenza Hugh-Jones tells us in her note to the present CD, Brahms allowed for all four of his clarinet chamber works, which would include the clarinet quintet, to be published with an alternate part for viola.

In the clarinet quintet on the present disc, however, the substitution is problematic, for as it is originally written, Brahms scored the piece for clarinet and string quartet. In other words, there’s already one viola present in the ensemble. The timbral uniqueness by which the substituted instrument would otherwise stand out is thereby lost within the general string sonorities. It would be like a quartet for oboe and strings in which one of the violins was replaced by a second oboe. It raises the question, “Who’s on first?”

The way to make the substituted viola stand out in the quintet is to bring it forward in the recording and to emphasize it dynamically over the rest of the ensemble wherever its part needs to be distinguished from the rest of the strings, which is what the current performance tends to do. And where the viola playing the clarinet part becomes part of the general melee, as it does in the agitated passage between mm. 28 and 35, the effect is to turn the piece into another two-viola string quintet, similar to the composer’s op. 88 and the later op. 111 on this disc, where it’s difficult to differentiate between the two viola lines.

Brahms may have sanctioned the alternate edition—it was extra income for himself and Simrock, his publisher, something he was not inclined to turn down—but in my opinion it just doesn’t work. On the other hand, if you’re not particularly fond of the clarinet, you can listen to this and just pretend that Brahms actually wrote a third two-viola string quintet. Performance-wise, Rysanov and company bring playing as richly textured and nuanced to the work as one could want, and they take the fairly lengthy first-movement exposition repeat.

With the G-Major String Quintet and the two op. 91 songs, Rysanov is in as-written territory. Preferring Mozart’s similarly styled quintets with two violas to Schubert’s example with two cellos, the second of Brahms’s string quintets, written in 1890, is a relatively sunny, sanguine work in its outer movements, especially for the composer whose music from his last years is so often described as autumnal, reflective, and regret-filled. But he makes up for it in the two inner movements with a Dvo?ák-like “dumka” Adagio and a halting, sobbing Un poco allegretto.

Rysanov and company are a bit dewy in their performance of the piece, tending to play up its weepy side in the second and third movements, but I love the indulgent wallow, and besides, the corrective comes in the finale with playing that crackles with the abandon of a wild, stomping Gypsy dance. There are fine performances by the Nash, Raphael, and Chamber Music Northwest ensembles, as well as others, which more logically perhaps pair Brahms’s two string quintets together, but this new version can hold its own with the best of them.

The two op. 91 songs are often included in programs of the viola versions of Brahms’s clarinet sonatas because they were actually scored for alto, piano, and viola. The idea of adding a melody instrument to a keyboard-accompanied song was not new, one of its most celebrated pre-Brahms examples being Schubert’s The Shepherd on the Rock , which employs a clarinet.

Despite sharing a single opus number, Brahms’s two songs, Gestillte Sehnsucht (Longing Appeased) and Geistliches Wiegenlied (Sacred Lullaby), were written 20 years apart, in 1884 and 1864, respectively; and no, I don’t have the years backwards. They’re presented on the current recording in reverse chronological order, as they are on all recordings I’m familiar with, because Gestillte Sehnsucht was designated op. 91/1 and Geistliches Wiegenlied , op. 91/2, though it should have been the other way around. Ordinarily, this wouldn’t be cause for comment, but given my warped sense of humor, I find something quite entertaining about this. Brahms wrote the earlier of the two songs, the Lullaby, as a gift for his friend Joseph Joachim and Joachim’s wife, Amalie, on the birth of their son, whom they named Brahms’s godson. The song was intended for Amalie to sing, Joachim to play on viola, and Brahms to accompany at the piano, a lovely picture of domestic bliss.

Gestillte Sehnsucht came 20 years later in response to a rather different circumstance. You might say that Brahms wrote it for Joachim’s and Amalie’s divorce. Joachim had accused Amalie of having an affair, and Brahms, perhaps naive in matters of marital un-bliss, hoped to reconcile the split couple with a pretty song. But what lends a special perversity to the whole episode is that the “other” man Joachim accused his wife of sleeping with was none other than Brahms’s publisher, Simrock, thus trapping Brahms between two friends—the proverbial rock and a hard place—with one of them, Simrock, being his source of income. Brahms made his choice when he intervened in the divorcing couple’s legal proceedings by writing a letter in Amalie’s defense (by implication, exonerating Simrock), which was read in court. As a result, it would be several years before Brahms’s friendship with Joachim was repaired.

This is my first acquaintance with mezzo-soprano Alice Coote, but I can tell you that her singing of the two songs makes this album a tropical-island disc. She has that deep, dark contralto sound that suits these songs perfectly and that recalls voices of yesteryear like those of Kathleen Ferrier and Maureen Forrester. Henry Fogel called her singing “lovely” in a performance of Brahms’s Alto Rhapsody (33:6), and Barry Brenesal found her “a thoroughly believable monster of selfishness for an emperor, with dramatic insight matched by a disciplined tone” in a DVD production of Monteverdi’s L’incoronazione di Poppea (33:3).

While I remain unconvinced by the clarinet quintet with a viola replacing the clarinet, I have nothing but praise for all of the players, the singer, and the performances.

FANFARE: Jerry Dubins
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Works on This Recording

Songs (2) for Alto, Viola and Piano, Op. 91 by Johannes Brahms
Performer:  Alice Coote (Mezzo Soprano), Ashley Wass (Piano), Maxim Rysanov (Viola)
Period: Romantic 
Written: ?1864-84; Austria 
Quintet for Clarinet and Strings in B minor, Op. 115 by Johannes Brahms
Performer:  Alexander Sitkovetsky (Violin), Maxim Rysanov (Viola), Mariana Osipova (Violin)
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1891; Austria 
Notes: In this performance the clarinet part has been transcribed for viola.  
Quintet for Strings no 2 in G major, Op. 111 by Johannes Brahms
Performer:  Alexander Sitkovetsky (Violin), Maxim Rysanov (Viola), Mariana Osipova (Violin)
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1890; Austria 

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