Notes and Editorial Reviews
This is a hybrid Super Audio CD playable on both regular and Super Audio CD players.
3 Violin Sonatas. FAE Sonata:
Arabella Steinbacher (vn); Robert Kulek (pn)
PENTATONE 5186 367 (SACD: 78:57)
Playing the 1716 Booth Stradivari, violinist Arabella Steinbacher plays Johannes Brahms’s three Violin Sonatas, as well as the
Scherzo he contributed to the FAE Sonata, with a prepossessing tonal command, captured and reproduced by PentaTone’s engineers, who have balanced both performers close up yet communicating a sense of the venue’s spaciousness (the recording took place in September 2000, at the Concertboerderij Valthermond). In the Vivace ma non troppo of Brahms’s First Violin Sonata, Steinbacher mixes strength and tenderness, exhibiting a wide dynamic range that the recorded sound has transmitted to the listeners. Robert Kulek’s introduction and accompanying figures at the second movement’s opening also reverberate warmly in the ambiance underneath Steinbacher’s sound, especially thick and honeyed in these passages (even at times recalling Mischa Elman’s fabled tone). Demonstrating their (and PentaTone’s) dynamic range and control, the two performers nearly disappear in the quietest passages at the center of that movement—and again near the movement’s end. They’re relaxed at the finale’s opening, and progress to a gentle conclusion, with Steinbacher employing a range of conservative but well-judged techniques in both left and right hands to enhance the expressive effect.
In the Second Sonata’s first movement, the duo adopts the same leisurely pace and displays the same combination of strength and sensitivity. In the second, they set out more tentatively in the opening section; they don’t rush the contrasting Vivace section, in which Steinbacher seems almost to be playing at the beginning
, so nasal does her tone become—yet it never sounds so forced as do Anne-Sophie Mutter’s tonal experimentation in Ludwig van Beethoven’s Sonatas (I’ve also seen Mutter begin Jean Sibelius’s Concerto with no vibrato at all—and none too attractive an underlying tone—in a televised performance). But Steinbacher waxes eloquent and glows by the section’s end. The rich tone from the First Sonata returns in Steinbacher’s reading of the last movement, but her sensitive interchanges with Kulek during the theme’s statement make it clear that she doesn’t rely on tone production alone to deliver her musical message.
In their fiery opening of the Third Sonata, Steinbacher and Kulek reveal an intensity that many may have missed in the first two works—not only in the movement’s frequent outbursts but in their generally heated expressivity throughout the Sonata. Their reading of the Adagio maintains the same warmth—or heat. In the brief third movement, they sound playful enough, but perhaps emphasize the “poco” in the “poco presto” part of the movement’s designation and the “con sentiment” in preference to the movement’s scherzando elements, though they’re forceful enough at the beginning. They build the finale into an almost symphonic statement. The program concludes with the Scherzo from the FAE Sonata, which makes a strong impact in the duo’s vigorous, strong-minded, but hardly unnuanced, performance (I remember watching Viktoria Mullova convert this piece into a sheer burst of somewhat undifferentiated energy).
Anne-Sophie Mutter has apparently taken Steinbacher under her wing, but Mutter’s own recording (
34:5), though well recorded, soaring, and authoritative in its own way, doesn’t make these Sonatas as ingratiating as does Steinbacher (and Mutter’s is far more mannered). For the unforced but forceful command and élan of Steinbacher’s performances and for the liveliness of the recorded sound, it would be niggardly to accord the program anything less than an urgent recommendation.
FANFARE: Robert Maxham
Though sometimes thought of as a Romantic master who scored thickly and richly, be it orchestral, piano, vocal or chamber music, Brahms often gives you music of luminous subtlety especially in his harmonic and melodic writing, and this luminosity benefits greatly from clarity of performance and high production standards both of which are found in this PentaTone release. Arabella Steinbacher and Robert Kulek bring to the Brahms violin sonatas a refined understanding, subtle expression, and blended beauty of tone on both violin and keyboard. Likewise, the clarity is greatly served by optimal microphone placement and recording techniques.
The "FAE Sonata" is included along with Violin Sonatas Nos. 1, 2, and 3. The Booth-Stradivarius (if that is indeed the instrument Steinbacher plays on this recording) has a wonderfully rich range of color, allowing the violinist to glide gracefully to the higher registers with full, bright timbre and on rare occasion bite into lower dark tones in forte with almost an audible crunch (which she never overdoes).
Even the earliest of these sonatas require musicians of insight and maturity, which Steinbacher and Kulek have. The violin tone, expressively lyrical, is also at times slightly brittle but not bitter. Perhaps bitterness is not called for in these beautiful sonatas. But somberness and joy are within the emotional range, and Steinbacher's violin is well within reach of both. She and Kulek also reveal insights into the compositional techniques Brahms utilizes to justify or propel his music. Their playing sings through the occasional complexities, such as inverted counterpoint, imitation, deceptive cadences, and chromatic modulations, all of which in Brahms are a natural expression of the music and not just added on.
Accompanist Kulek's piano has beautiful round tones that seem to evoke colors, and indeed color of expression is an optimum word as he shapes Brahms's often autumnal phrases with artistry while matching Steinbacher's decrescendos, phrases, and cadences beautifully. The musicianship makes this disc an excellent introduction to the Brahms violin sonatas.
By the same token, for those familiar with these works, this duet does not force eccentricities of style upon you in order to offer for the sake of novelty a different or alternative take on Brahms. The attitude is professional and not so much novel. They play so as to facilitate the composer's works, creating expressive and sometimes troubled music that exists as naturally as trees in a forest. Recommended.
- Greg La Traille, ArkivMusic.com
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