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Hyperion Records

CDA67584 - Brahms: Viola Sonatas

Recording details: May 2006
Wathen Hall, St Paul's School, Barnes, United Kingdom
Produced by Andrew Keener
Engineered by Simon Eadon
Release date: March 2007
Total duration: 65 minutes 4 seconds

'Lawrence Power can be heard to far greater effect in Brahms' two late viola sonatas and a rarity: the viola version approved by the composer of his Clarinet Trio. Power has a glorious tone and an instinctive understanding of this autumnal music and is well-partnered by the pianist, Simon Crawford-Phillips' (The Mail on Sunday)

'In Lawrence Power's hands the extensive use of the viola's upper register poses no problem; he commands a wide tonal spectrum throughout his range, and there's no sense of strain … this is a very fine performance, of exceptional expressive range, from extreme delicacy to thrilling power … I particularly enjoyed, in the Second Sonata, the second movement's dark passion, where Simon Crawford-Phillips manages exactly to convey Brahms' forte me dolce e ben cantando. The final variations are just as impressive, each one so well characterised (listen out for Power's graceful agility in Var 3) yet perfectly paced so that the coda seems an inevitable climax to the whole work' (Gramophone)

'Power makes a convincing case for these as arrangements—more so than other recommended versions. His tone is strong, never whiny (as violas can be) but capable of some variety in colour and expression. Power's musical relationship with Simon Crawford-Phillips, and especially with Tim Hugh in the trio, gives a lot of pleasure' (BBC Music Magazine)

'Lawrence Power and Simon Crawford-Phillips are a refined and imaginative duo, phrasing with a true Brahmsian breadth, yet never lingering indulgently. A solo viola can easily sound nasal and querulous. Power's tone, though, is consistently beautiful: pure, burnished and expressively coloured' (The Daily Telegraph)

'Lawrence Power is such a superlative artist … [his] playing is so full of imagination, sensitivity and gorgeously ample phrasing' (The Guardian)

'Lawrence Power and Simon Crawford-Phillips bring a much broader expressive and dynamic range to bear on these timeless scores, so that when Brahms turns truly introspective … the effect is quite magical when all around is so passionate and fiery … another winning disc from Hyperion' (International Record Review)

'The best tonal contrasts come in the revamped Trio, Op 114, with its subtle interplay between Power’s viola, Tim Hugh’s cello and the piano of Simon Crawford-Phillips. Musically and emotionally, it treads a claustrophobic path; but the musicianship lights the sky' (The Times)

'It is hard to remember, when listening to this superb disc, that the three works, Brahms's last, were written with the clarinet in mind. Power is among the most persuasive instrumentalists of our day, and, with his unremitting eloquence, could make you believe the viola was a trombone, but his communicativeness is a matter of the deepest feeling. The andante un poco adagio movement of the F minor sonata is infinitely touching, with a pathos that seems to go to the viola's heart, though the stocism, defiance and even exuberance with which the persuasive wistfulness of these works is contrasted are just as authentically rendered' (The Sunday Times)

'Such is Power's command of expression that there is no danger of the instrumental dialogue becoming muddled, or of his—yes—powerful tone being swamped by the thickly written piano part. Of course, Simon Crawford-Phillips's discretion and the recording's excellent balance help too. Indeed, Hyperion's warm, enveloping acoustic is a major bonus in this recording. Another one is a beautifully lyrical rendition of the Trio, which hasn't often been recorded in the viola version. Power and Tim Hugh are closely matched and yet sufficiently contrasted with each other' (The Strad)

'Lawrence Power, the superb British violist, has been putting his underrated instrument back on the solo map in a big way … the viola has an expressivity that is all its own. It's an intelligent, well-paced account with plenty of passion—and Power often lives up to his name. He's especially striking in the quietest, highest moments, playing with rapt and hypnotic finesse. Tim Hugh is a sympathetic cello partner in the trio, while pianist Simon Crawford-Phillips offers good support throughout' (Classic FM Magazine)

'Power draws a smooth honeyed tone from his uncredited viola … these are excellent performances, no question, and Hyperion achieves an ideal balance between the instruments' (Fanfare, USA)

'When you hear Brahms' chamber music played by someone as charismatic as Power, you realise how consistently inspired it is—and how much more intimate it sounds on viola … Power's warm, unshowy musicianship is something special, ably supported here by Tim Hugh and Simon Crawford-Phillips' (Financial Times)

'This is another marvellous CD from Hyperion bringing together the works Brahms composed for that Cinderella of instruments, the viola. Lawrence Power is one of the foremost violists of the day at the moment and he is superbly supported by cellist Tim Hugh and the discerning accompanist Simon Crawford-Phillips. The two sonatas are romantic works full of that nostalgic longing for youth from a composer who was nearing the end of his days when they were composed. Power plays with a disarming simplicity yet he plumbs the deepest depths of expressive interpretation which reaches the core of Brahms' thoughts. The recorded sound is beautifully balanced with viola and piano merging as one. The same could be said of the wonderful Trio in A minor which includes the contribution of Tim Hugh who brings a soulful panache to the cello part. Apart from the sheer towering achievement of the soloists, the disc is also highly recommended for Malcolm Macdonald's excellent notes which show his intense admiration of these great autumnal works by Brahms. This must now be the definitive disc for those who want Brahms' works for viola grouped together' (

'Lawrence Power possède une belle sonorité et une intonation admirable … le Trio, que l'on entend fréquemment dans sa version pour clarinette, violoncelle et piano, trouve un meilleur équilibre avec la participation engagée du violoncelliste Tim Hugh, qui soutient avec chaleur l'alto dans ses envolées lyriques' (Pizzicato, Luxembourg)

Viola Sonatas
Vivace  [5'00]
Allegro  [7'50]
Adagio  [7'19]
Allegro  [4'20]
Allegro amabile  [8'12]

Without the least need to fall back on any ‘viola jokes’, it remains the case that much of repertoire of the ‘by-product of the violin’ is second hand.

Brahms’s most important contribution to the viola repertoire were originally conceived for the clarinet, his masterful creations being inspired by the artistry of Richard Mühlfeld, principal clarinettist in Meiningen during the composer’s close relationship with the city’s orchestra in the last years of the nineteenth century.

The viola’s unique timbre instills a greater sense of intimacy to these wonderful chamber works, where the clarinet is more obviously soloistic, and Brahms’s pioneering treatment of his chamber instruments as equal contributors to a sublime whole makes the possibility of alternative instrumentations all the more reasonable—versions of the Sonatas were also prepared by the composer for violin and piano, while the viola and piano versions recorded here have rightly won for themselves a popular following.

Lawrence Power is rapidly establishing himself as one of the most thrilling young performers around. Acclaimed for his recordings of York Bowen and Cecil Forsyth concertos, he now turns to these cornerstones of the viola repertoire. Brahms’s magnificent craftsmanship and expression of deep feeling are superbly demonstrated by the players in performances of great intimacy.

Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
Brahms’s most important contributions to the repertoire of the viola came about as a by-product of his most important contributions to the repertoire of the clarinet. In the same way that the world owes Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto and Quintet to the virtuosity of Anton Stadler, so the creation of Brahms’s last four chamber works was sparked by the artistry of Richard Mühlfeld (1856–1907), the principal clarinettist of the Meiningen Orchestra. Brahms had established a particularly close relationship with this orchestra since their then conductor, Hans von Bülow, had offered him the chance to try out his orchestral works before their official premieres. In March 1891 Brahms visited Meiningen to hear the orchestra under its new conductor Fritz Steinbach, and was struck by the polish and almost feminine sensitivity of Mühlfeld’s playing. He had apparently bidden farewell to composition the previous year with the completion of his G major String Quintet Op 111, but his admiration for the clarinettist’s artistry suddenly re-awakened the creative urge.

Having heard Mühlfeld play Weber’s Clarinet Concertino, Brahms asked him to play his entire repertoire for him and asked many questions about his instrument and its technique. Thus fired, he started composing again. Not only do the four works he wrote for Mühlfeld—the Clarinet Quintet and Trio of 1891 and the two Sonatas of 1894—rank among the supreme masterpieces of the instrument’s repertoire, but they represent the purest distillation of Brahms’s thought in the chamber music medium. They also reflect, in their innate expressive character, something of the personal isolation he was beginning to feel as many of his closest friends died off, in an increasingly frequent punctuation of his last years. When sheer beauty is evoked in them, it is as a consolation; nostalgia and melancholy often seem to underlie the most rhythmically assertive ideas. These works, in short, have established themselves as repertoire cornerstones not merely through their magnificent craftsmanship and powers of invention, but because they convey a particularly potent and complex nexus of feeling.

The Quintet and Trio, composed at the resort of Bad Ischl in the summer of 1891, received their first performances in Meiningen on 24 November that year, played by Mühlfeld. In the Quintet Joseph Joachim was first violin with members of the Court Orchestra. In the Trio Mühlfeld was joined by Robert Haussmann, the cellist of the Joachim String Quartet, and Brahms himself took the piano part. The Quintet was much the better received of the two, but Brahms several times declared that he personally preferred the Trio. When the Trio came to be published the following year, Brahms provided it with a viola part as an alternative to the clarinet. Such substitutions were not uncommon in the music of the time, though they may seem surprising to us today: performances of the Trio with viola have remained infrequent, and it is almost entirely associated in our minds with the timbre of the clarinet. (Even more surprising, Brahms also made an alternative viola part for the Quintet, turning it into the curious phenomenon of a string quartet with additional viola obbligato.) The viola seems less a natural leader in ensemble chamber music than the clarinet: its darker, huskier timbre does not stand out in such sharp relief from the other string instruments, but it imparts a greater intimacy which renders some passages more atmospheric and subtilizes the play of light and shade that is already part of the expressive essence of these works.

The music itself, of course, remains identical in its substance. Standing at the very end of his long line of concerted chamber music, the Trio in A minor, Op 114 embodies all the resource and subtlety of Brahms’s late style. Its extreme compression of thought marks it as a natural successor to his C minor Piano Trio, Op 101, composed in 1886. It is remarkable for the consistency with which it exploits the disturbance, anxiety and shadow of the minor mode, and brief excursions into the major often turn out to offer illusory consolation.

Here the cello assumes almost equal importance with the viola, and indeed opens the proceedings unaccompanied, with an eloquent melody varied by the viola and balanced by a muttering triplet motif in the piano. These ideas make up the first subject of a troubled and concentrated sonata-form design. The second subject opens calmly in the relative major (C major) but soon mutates to a more troubled E minor. The terse, uneasy development evolves new thematic entities—a sombre chorale-like phrase, whispering pianissimo semiquaver scales against wide-spread piano chords—and the recapitulation flexibly reshapes the elements of the exposition, bypassing the opening melody to move straight into its more fretful rhythmic continuation. This time the second group starts in F major but veers into the tonic A minor. In the coda the ‘chorale’ idea returns with apparently fateful import, and though the music gains A major it proves curiously insubstantial: the music evanesces into the passionless beauty of an Aeolian harp, with semiquaver scales in liquid contrary motion on viola and cello.

A more serenely philosophical mood, tinged with fantasy, prevails in the D major Adagio, which packs much musical matter into a very small space; paradoxically, this masterly compression gives a feeling of expansive relaxation. Brahms’s intricate elaboration of the smallest motifs, and the subtle oppositions of instrumental colour, yield textures and thematic working of unusual richness. The ensuing Andantino grazioso in A major is a self-mocking intermezzo, its nonchalant waltz-tune evoking the salon manner of Brahms’s popular Liebeslieder waltzes, but now fluidly and sophisticatedly varied. Perhaps the movement reflects the fact that Brahms had spent time at Bad Ischl that summer in the company of his friend Johann Strauss the Younger, whose waltzes he admired with something close to envy. It evolves three closely related themes, touches D major for a brief trio section, and nonchalantly reduces the initial waltz melody into a schematic version of itself along the way.

Bracing and rhythmically supple, the minor-key finale exhibits the most strenuous music in the entire work, in a sonata-form transformation of Brahms’s obsessive scherzo style. The combination of 6/8 and 2/4 metres intensifies the sense of unrest. The development, very concise, is notable for its rapid modulations, involving extended chains or ladders of descending thirds, which suggest mystery and instability even in the movement’s most cheerful passages. The movement drives on towards its conclusion with no relaxation, until the coda’s choleric bravura offers a terse, wintry gesture of dismissal.

In 1894 the sixty-one-year-old Brahms presented Mühlfeld with two further works—a pair of sonatas for clarinet and piano, his very last pieces of chamber music, composed that summer at Bad Ischl. Mühlfeld and Brahms introduced them first at a private concert in Berchtesgaden for the Duke and Duchess of Meiningen on 19 September of that year, and in January 1895 they gave the public premieres in Vienna. Whenever they played the sonatas together afterwards, Brahms gave Mühlfeld his own performing fees; and he granted the clarinettist all the performing rights in the sonatas in his lifetime. Brahms lavished particular care and affection on these works, and he clearly wished them to have the widest possible circulation, for he adapted them—with a certain amount of recomposition in each case—in two parallel forms: as sonatas for viola and piano, and for violin and piano.

The violin versions are rarely heard, but the viola sonatas have become cornerstones of that instrument’s repertoire, just as the original forms have for the repertoire of the clarinet. Brahms was effectively establishing a new genre, since before they appeared there were virtually no important duo sonatas for viola and piano (there is an unfinished sonata by Glinka), though Schumann and Joachim had used the viola for a number of lyric pieces. While in the Op 114 Trio his viola part was virtually the same as its clarinet original, merely transposing some passages downward to come within the viola’s compass, in the Op 120 sonatas the recasting of the part went a good deal further. Brahms entirely rewrote some figurations, added double-stopping, and sometimes extended the melodic line at places where the clarinet part was silent. Subtly and unobtrusively, he accommodated the music to the different expressive character of the viola.

These sonatas embody his compositional technique in its ultimate taut, essentialized, yet marvellously flexible manner. It had long been Brahms’s habit to compose some of his most significant works in contrasting pairs (indeed, we could see the Quintet and Trio as such a pair); and the two members of Op 120 make a fascinating study in contrasts. No 1 in F minor has something of the turbulent passion which that key always evoked in Brahms, and is the more orthodox in form. No 2 in E flat major is a fantasia-like conception in three movements, none of them really slow. Within these broad confines the works display a kaleidoscopic range of colour and motion, and a propensity for mercurial shifts of harmony and texture. Indeed, they are prime examples of that ‘economy, yet richness’ which Arnold Schoenberg said was one of the qualities he most admired in Brahms.

The opening Allegro appassionato of the Sonata in F minor, Op 120 No 1 manages to convey an impression of gravity and tensile strength without compromising the predominantly lyrical nature of its ideas, which are typified by the yearning, wide-spanned melody that follows the brief piano introduction. The recapitulation features characteristically Brahmsian cross-rhythms, but the coda brings an ending in the major mode, though one touched with a sense of quiet resignation. The remaining three movements are all in the major, but with subtle shadings that distil emotional complexity into relatively few and seemingly simple notes. The exquisite slow movement, Andante un poco adagio, is a still, entranced nocturnal song in A flat, just touched into motion by the viola’s melancholy, rhapsodic turning figures and the slow descending arpeggios of the piano. The following intermezzo, Allegretto grazioso, also in A flat, is in the manner of an Austrian Ländler or country waltz, though developed with extraordinary contrapuntal skill. The waltz tune is in fact an amiable transformation of the opening theme of the sonata’s first movement. The peasant vigour developed in its second strain expands to boisterousness in the Vivace finale, a bracing and sometimes pawky major-key rondo with a chuckling main theme, and a pealing, bell-like figure of three repeated notes, heard in both instruments, that enlivens the whole movement.

The Sonata in E flat major, Op 120 No 2 is more mellow and intimate in overall effect: any heroic passions are concentrated in the central scherzo. The Allegro amabile with which it begins—the very tempo direction is paradoxical—proves to be the most unassuming of Brahms’s sonata structures, yet one of the subtlest. Its musing, song-like character and explorations of colour and key conceal continuous, logical development and interrelation of themes, and its ending is gentle, marked dolce, tranquillo. In complete contrast, the second movement is a large and unexpectedly powerful scherzo in E flat minor. This Allegro appassionato is Brahms’s last scherzo, in the same key as his first (for piano, Op 4, composed forty-four years earlier) and it has something of the character of a heroic waltz. The function of the trio is assumed by a broad sostenuto melody, whose trend to asymmetric proportions—it has a rather Hungarian character—is echoed in the broad, glowing, fourteen-bar theme of the finale, Andante con moto. The classical poise, solidity of rhythm and opulent harmony of this tune offer enormous potential for the five variations to which Brahms subjects it. In fact these variations are comparatively simple and lyrical, paring the theme down to its smallest note-values and exploring its possibilities in modest contrapuntal textures of almost Mozartian clarity. The music rises to virtuosity only in the brief valedictory display of the closing pages.

Malcolm MacDonald © 2007

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