Alina Ibragimova and Cédric Tiberghien are an established duo who have already recorded a good deal of repertoire together, as well as each having solo careers. I particularly treasure their recording of Szymanowski’s works for violin and piano, but I had not previously heard them in the Viennese classics, so was pleased to receive this disc. I think of Ibragimova as being particularly a player of both fire and subtlety; Tiberghien has shown a superfine sensibility, for example in his recording of Szymanowski piano works, but also has demonstrated that he has the power for Liszt and Bartók.
My first impression of their Brahms disc reinforced my feeling that here we have a real partnership: they phrase and seem to breathe together. They can also show great restraint, and I mean this in an entirely positive sense: Brahms may require a good deal of weight, particularly in the piano parts, but he benefits from an approach which does not aim to squeeze out all the sentiment but uses suggestion and nuance. In the G major work, they offer gentle playing with a lift to the rhythm in the first movement and an excellent build up to the climax of the development. They keep the slow movement moving and the mysterious passage towards the end is particularly finely realized. The finale is tender and fragile with no sense of rush.
I admired the way in the opening of the A major sonata that Tiberghien subordinates his complicated figuration to the singing line of the violin, whose opening theme, as the booklet notes, is reminiscent of the prize song from Die Meistersinger, Brahms not being the rabid anti-Wagnerian as he is sometimes portrayed. In the second movement, which alternates between Andante and Vivace sections, I particularly enjoyed their light skipping in the latter, as opposed to the clodhopping I have heard in this movement. Dark undercurrents swirl through the finale, hinting at depths Brahms chooses to pass by, and I thought of the Fourth Symphony, which dates from the previous year.
The D minor has always seemed to me the finest of the three; for all its grace and power, it is a dark and haunted work. I was particularly impressed by their playing of the wonderful passage in the development of the first movement, in which the violin develops the main theme using alternatively stopped and open strings on the same note—a technique known as bariolage. Meanwhile the piano maintains a pedal D, and the whole passage gains in power from its intense quietness. This work has two middle movements. They rightly keep the Adagio moving and resist the temptation to sink into its deep plush harmonies. The Scherzo is light on its feet to the point of being ghostly, and at the end it just vanishes. Finally, the passion explodes in the Finale, and here we are given all the power and weight we could want, while also hearing a good deal of light and shade. The end is as powerful as one of Chopin’s Ballades (in which I would like to hear Tiberghien). This is a masterly performance.
The normal filler for the Brahms sonatas is the Scherzo from the composite FAE sonata which Brahms wrote as a young man in collaboration with Schumann and the otherwise almost forgotten Albert Dietrich. However, Ibragimova and Tiberghien pass up on that and instead give us a short piece by Clara Schumann. She seems to me a tragic figure, quite probably a more admirable human being than her husband, who, for all that he adored her, must have been a difficult man even before he succumbed to mental illness. Had circumstances been different she might have become a great composer, but they weren’t, and she didn’t. It is interesting that she gave up composition following her husband’s death, which suggests he was more an encouragement than a hindrance to her. Her work here is a pleasant salon piece, one of her last compositions. It makes an affecting encore.
Ibragimova plays an Anselmo Bellosio violin of circa 1775 and Tiberghien a modern Steinway piano. The recording is sympathetic. The booklet has some useful comments on the affinity of Brahms’s sonatas with some of his songs. There are, of course, many other recordings of the Brahms violin sonatas, including such classics as Suk with Katchen and Perlman with Ashkenazy. This is a worthy successor and will give much pleasure.