For the third time in four and a half years, we have had occasion to take in a recital consisting of all three of Brahms’s violin sonatas; it looks like this program idea has become a distinct thing, maybe even a meme, though it presents problems. This cycle, Saturday night, was at Pickman Hall at Longy/Bard with Korean violinist Kowoon Yang and Longy faculty member Esther Ning Yau at the piano. There was also a “bonus” item, described below.
Taking all three Brahms sonatas (No. 1 in G major, op. 78; No. 2 in A major, op. 100, and No. 3 in D minor, op. 108) at one go runs risks for performers and audiences. The biggest of these is the failure to devote sufficient consideration to the particular esthetic nuances of each one, similar to the risk presented when confronting a box set of the entire symphonies of some composer: the performers will doubtless get some better than others, leaving the listener wondering if the comprehensive approach is worth the candle. Somewhat related is the issue of having the same performer’s artistic point of view applied to similar compositional points of view, where that performer’s take might be more congenial to works by different composers. In the case of Brahms these problems loom even larger because, first, his compositional voice was so consistent across his life, and second, all his sonatas are mature pieces written within a ten-year span (the “bonus” was the sole exception, for which we’re grateful).
None of the cycles we’ve heard has presented the sonatas in strict order of composition, which can be a good thing from a programming standpoint. We suspect that most players will want, as the Yang-Yau duo did, to end with the bravura No. 3 (Stefan Jackiw broke this pattern in 2014 by putting No. 1 last). The consequence of this decision is the necessity of finding adequate space between Nos. 1 and 2, which are both predominantly lyrical. The duo began with No. 2, whose inspiration and execution can be thought of as lighter than No. 1 (though as always with Brahms, these are relative notions, as “the poet of regret” never quite abandons himself to unalloyed joy): the A major resulted in part from the composer’s infatuation with a singer, and some of the tunes in it are taken from songs he wrote for her to perform. Things got off to a good start, with Yang and Yau presenting the principal tune in an unfussy, unmannered, and rhythmically incisive way. Yang’s vibrato was well contained, but as time went on a troubling tonal flatness asserted itself, with too little shading of phrasing and dynamics. A severely mannered sculpting of every note, for which we have criticized Jackiw, can be annoying and a detriment to the flow of the music; but its opposite doesn’t work either. The alternation between “chorus” and “verse” sections of the middle movement certainly helped, and the players kept a good balance between them. Yau was notably delicate in the “choruses” (the faster bits), with restrained yet effective pedaling; we wish Yang’s pizzicato were more resonant in these sections, though. The finale reverted to the issues presented by the first movement: all the notes were there, but the tone was insufficiently inflected and as a consequence the music sometimes went AWOL.
The G major sonata began life in good cheer and ended in woe. Brahms started writing it as a gift for his godson, Felix Schumann, but this talented violinist son of Robert and Clara died at age 24 before Brahms had finished, so in the end the sonata became his memorial. It’s some of the saddest music ever written in major mode, culminating in a movement based on a song, “Rain Song,” from which Brahms worked backwards to create a dotted rhythmic motif that ties the whole together. The first movement is one of the most achingly lovely in all music, and Yang and Yau presented the rhythm with perfect lift and separation, building to a fine intensity in the second subject. Yang achieved excellent emotional peaks at high volume, but the intensity dropped off too much in softer passages, and again did not project through the pizzicatos. The duo did, however, finish this movement strongly. They superbly presented the gorgeous principal tune of the second movement, and complemented its lyricism with rhythmic force in the dirge-like contrasting section, then found renewed poignancy in the return, whose double-stops Yang projected stabbingly. The finale went well, too, for the most part, with the dotted rhythm against the piano’s driving rain its highlight, with an effective recall of the second movement theme. While one is hesitant to request that bane of Romantic interpretation, rubato, a judicious application at key points might have enhanced the affect of this movement.
Having essayed the two most private of the Brahms violin-piano works in the first half, the duo gave the second half over to the more outward-facing music he wrote in this genre. They began with the C minor scherzo Brahms contributed to the so-called “F-A-E” Sonata, a musical exquisite corpse that Schumann organized in honor of Joseph Joachim, with a first movement by Schumann’s pupil Albert Dietrich, a slow movement and finale by Schumann, and the scherzo by the then 20-year-old Brahms. A word of explanation here is necessary to clear up confusion created by the printed program and the listing for this concert. This scherzo is not Brahms’s op. 4; that was a scherzo in E-flat minor for piano written at age 18, on the strength of which (it’s a great, fiery knuckle-buster) Schumann requested this one. The F-A-E Sonata has no opus number (though Schumann rolled his movements into his own third violin sonata), and wasn’t published as a whole until 1935; Joachim published the Brahms movement in 1906. Like the op. 4, this scherzo is ablaze with fireworks for both instruments, and Yang and Yau caught the mood just right.
As noted, it’s conventional wisdom to end a Brahms violin sonata cycle with the popular and sturdy No. 3, and the fine performance it received from Yang and Yau justifies the wisdom of the convention. Like much of Brahms’s late writing it is a marvel of concision, and the duo clearly took pains to make the most of each phrase while keeping the momentum up. Yau was touchingly rhapsodic in the first movement’s second subject, and again in the chorale-like melody in the finale (though a little rubato there might have been welcome). Both players offered a creamy, lush, long-limbed reading of the slow movement. The scherzo was perhaps the weakest link, seeming a bit hesitant, but the finale opened with a big bang and kept a charging pace.