As pinnacles of the chamber music repertoire, Brahms’s violin sonatas have received many outstanding recordings over the years, but if anyone can throw fresh light on these established masterpieces it’s the stellar duo of violinist Alina Ibragimova and pianist Cédric Tiberghien. Their cycle of Mozart sonatas on Hyperion won numerous critical accolades, as more recently did their revelatory coupling of works by Franck and Vierne. And sure enough, the pairing of Ibragimova’s sweet-toned but deeply intelligent playing with Tiberghien’s wonderfully transparent pianism works wonders with Brahms. So often one hears claims that Brahms’s music is ‘turgid’ or ‘heavy’: yet listen to this disc of instruments with modern set-up but informed by considered and tasteful application of period insight and you’ll wonder how anyone could ever apply such terms to this life-enhancing music, so freshly minted does it sound.
Brahms wrote what is now known as his First Violin Sonata, Op 78 (several earlier efforts were discarded), in the late 1870s, the period of his high maturity, at the same time as the Violin Concerto. If the latter work dazzles with its virtuosity and sheer genre-busting dimensions, the Sonata explores an altogether more intimately lyrical and tender world. Closely bound up with Brahms’s feelings for Clara Schumann, and particularly with the death of her son Felix after a battle with tuberculosis at the age of just 25, it is cast in a radiant G major, but tinged with regrets, nostalgia and, in the second subject of the central slow movement, the unmistakable tread of a funeral march. In this performance, it seems tailor-made for Ibragimova’s bright-toned but searching palette, gently entwined with Tiberghien’s accompaniments. As well as the distinctive dotted motif (taken from a pair of songs Brahms had composed to texts by Klaus Groth), a characteristic of the piece is the expressive deployment of rising and falling sixths, and Ibragimova’s immaculate tuning and svelte bow-work ensure that every gesture has its emotional impact without ever forcing the point or feeling micromanaged. Hints of the Third Symphony emerge in the third movement, and the darkness-to-light progression of the closing pages, which speaks of reconciliation rather than Beethovenian triumphalism, is supremely touching.
The two later sonatas, Op 100 in A major and Op 108 in D minor, date from the mid-to-late 1880s and belong unmistakably to Brahms’s glorious late period. Like the First Sonata, the Second has roots in another of the composer’s Groth settings, Wie Melodien zieht es mir, although perhaps the work’s biggest surprise is the clear echo of Walther’s ‘prize song’ from Wagner’s Meistersinger at the very outset. Yet in the hands of Ibragimova and Tiberghien there’s no hint of Wagnerian heaviness; they revel in the music’s light and shade, the call-to-arms octaves that punctuate the first movement brilliant but unforced, and textures throughout are crystal-clear, even in the turbulent development section. The special magic they bring to this music is most obvious in the second movement, an unmistakably Brahmsian hybrid of slow movement and scherzo, where the play of light and the dance-like poise of the fast sections is beautifully realised, especially the final dash to the finish. The third-movement finale, marked Allegretto grazioso, quasi Andante, has just the right degree of autumnal glow to it.
With the Third Sonata, a four-movement work in D minor, we enter a more expansive and impassioned sound-world, yet once again it is the gentle introspection of much of the music that is brought out with such finesse by these players. Certainly there is no want of virtuosity in the outer movements, the last a thrillingly spirited tarantella; but what one carries away from this performance long after the final chords have died away are the understated nobility of the Adagio slow movement (with its heart-stopping burst of double-stops) and the almost pointillist delicacy of the third, its strands so expertly delineated here.
These are indeed unforgettable performances, combining exquisite tonal refinement with the constantly alert musical intelligence that is a hallmark of these players’ collaborations, and they must surely take their place at the head of a very distinguished field indeed. The cherry on the cake is a rapt, probing account of the first of Clara Schumann’s three Romances for violin and piano, Op 22, forming a delightful bicentennial tribute to one of the key figures both in Brahms’s life and in musical high Romanticism. Altogether, an absolute peach of a disc, and Brahms playing of rare distinction.