Notes and Editorial Reviews
Viola Sonatas: No. 1 in f; No. 2 in E?.Trio in a for Viola, Cello, and Piano
Lawrence Power (va); Tim Hugh (vc); Simon Crawford Phillips (pn)
HYPERION 67584 (65: 29)
My inclination was to list these works in the headnote by their given designations as the two sonatas Brahms wrote for clarinet and piano and the trio for clarinet, cello, and piano, noting that they are played here in their viola transcriptions. Recordings of the sonatas in their viola versions, however, are now approaching in numbers
recordings played in their original scoring for clarinet. Besides, Brahms himself made these transcriptions and encouraged Joseph Joachim to play them. So, for all practical purposes, the sonatas belong as much to the viola as they do to the clarinet. The two instruments are so closely matched in range and timbral characteristics that the exchange is a natural one, and Brahms made few changes to adapt the clarinet part to the viola, mostly involving some reworking of figuration and reinforcing with double-stops.
Probably because they are rarely played, it is not as well known that Brahms also arranged these sonatas for violin, which of course required somewhat more extensive tinkering; but the timbral character of the violin is not right for these works, which require a dark, rich, chocolate sound. Also infrequently played and therefore not well known is Brahms’s transcription of the clarinet part for viola in the clarinet trio. If the substitution of viola for clarinet is eminently successful in the sonatas, it is not nearly so satisfactory or satisfying in the trio. The problem is obvious: the viola and cello overlap in range, as do the clarinet and the cello, but with the latter combination you get two instruments whose contrasting timbral characteristics set them apart in stark relief. Still, it was an interesting idea to include the viola version of the trio along with the two sonatas. All of these works of course, including the magnificent B-Minor Clarinet Quintet, were written for virtuoso clarinetist and Brahms’s friend, Richard Mühlfeld.
Lawrence Power is one of the world’s leading violists who, in addition to his extensive solo concretizing, is a regular member of two top-tier chamber groups, the Nash Ensemble and the Leopold Trio. In a recent review of Brahms’s
, I opined that the score calls for a voice with hair on its chest tones. The same may be said of the three works on this disc. Power draws a smooth honeyed tone from his uncredited viola, but its sound is more creamy white chocolate than it is the complex texture and taste of the real dark bittersweet stuff from which Brahms molded this music. These are excellent performances, no question, and Hyperion achieves an ideal balance between the instruments that neither places the viola too far forward nor allows the piano to swamp it. And yet, would I choose these performances over all others to accompany me on my journey to the afterlife? Not likely. That privilege I’d have to reserve for a number of other potential candidates: Kim Kashkashian with Robert Levin on ECM New Series, Nils-Erik Sparf with Elisabeth Westenholz on BIS, and Nobuko Imai with Roger Vignoles on Chandos. Each has his or her own take on these works, but they all share one thing in common, and that’s Robert Frost’s “The woods are lovely, dark, and deep” quality, with an emphasis on the “dark and deep.”
I’m happy to welcome and recommend the newcomers here, but more as a supplement to other first choices.
FANFARE: Jerry Dubins
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