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Viola Sonata in F minor, Op 120 No 1
Summer 1894; first performed by Richard Mühlfeld and Brahms in Berchtesgaden, Meiningen, on 19 September 1894; also for clarinet and piano

'Brahms: The Complete Chamber Music' (CDS44331/42)
Brahms: The Complete Chamber Music
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'Brahms: Viola Sonatas' (CDA67584)
Brahms: Viola Sonatas
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Movement 1: Allegro appassionato
Track 1 on CDA67584 [7'43]
Track 1 on CDS44331/42 CD12 [7'43] 12CDs Boxed set (at a special price)
Movement 2: Andante un poco adagio
Track 2 on CDA67584 [4'54]
Track 2 on CDS44331/42 CD12 [4'54] 12CDs Boxed set (at a special price)
Movement 3: Allegretto grazioso
Track 3 on CDA67584 [3'59]
Track 3 on CDS44331/42 CD12 [3'59] 12CDs Boxed set (at a special price)
Movement 4: Vivace
Track 4 on CDA67584 [5'00]
Track 4 on CDS44331/42 CD12 [5'00] 12CDs Boxed set (at a special price)

Viola Sonata in F minor, Op 120 No 1
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.

from notes by Malcolm MacDonald © 2007

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Details for CDS44331/42 disc 12 track 4
Recording date
30 May 2006
Recording venue
Wathen Hall, St Paul's School, Barnes, United Kingdom
Recording producer
Andrew Keener
Recording engineer
Simon Eadon
Hyperion usage
  1. Brahms: Viola Sonatas (CDA67584)
    Disc 1 Track 4
    Release date: March 2007
  2. Brahms: The Complete Chamber Music (CDS44331/42)
    Disc 12 Track 4
    Release date: October 2008
    12CDs Boxed set (at a special price)
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