Theme and Variations

Thoughts and experiences of exploring classical, jazz, and other art music.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Sonata for Violin and Piano

I'm not sure where it started, but at least from Classical era compositions, a work named "Violin Sonata" would include a continuo, such as a keyboard, that was the accompaniment to the violin. In Brahms' three sonatas, the composer made a point of calling them "Sonata for Violin and Piano." This seems to me proper nomenclature, as both instruments play important roles, neither of which is accompaniment. In fact one of the CD liner notes refers to one of the pieces as (my paraphrasing) works for two orchestras. It is true that these works have a marvelous, full sound. With each repeated playing of the sonatas, I hear a new bit of music that adds to the beauty of the work.

(Incidentally, I recently saw a PBS special about Charles Schultz, the cartoonist who drew Peanuts. One of the characters in the strip was a piano player named Schroeder. Though Schultz preferred the music of Brahms, the name "Beethoven" sounded funnier, so that is what he had Schroeder play.)

Due to enthusiasm on my part, I have three recordings of Brahms' three sonatas for violin and piano. One of them is a two CD collection (which also contains the viola and piano sonatas, hence the second CD) performed by Pinchas Zukerman and Daniel Barenboim. The second recording comes from the EMI Classics Great Recordings of the Century, with Itzhak Perlman on violin and Vladimir Ashkenazy on piano. The third recording also comes from the EMI Classics label, and features Anne-Sophie Mutter on violin and Alexis Weissenberg on piano.

The first sonata, well...what can I say? All three of these sonatas are fantastic. I guess rather than blathering on about how great these works are to hear, or their history, but I'll just put links for Sonata No. 1 Op. 78, Sonata No. 2, Op.100, and Sonata No. 3, Op. 108.

I guess the best way to go would be to write about my favorite performers for each sonata. First, I have to admit right up front that I didn't care for the Mutter/Weissenberg performance. (I'm not sure why I put this CD here, it should be with the rest of Ms. Mutter's recordings.) I mostly had a problem with the piano playing. The pianist sounded stiff, almost mechanical, especially when played side-by-side with Mutter's (as usual) superb performance. So, while I find the CD OK, it isn't as pleasant to my ear as are the other two.

For the first work, Sonata No. 1 in G Major, Op. 78, I give the nod to Zukerman and Barenboim. Their performance reached out of the stereo and grabbed me by the ears, as if to say, "Hear this! Have you ever heard anything like it!?" How can you fail to appreciate such a work?

For Sonata No. 2 in A Major, Op. 100, I liked the Perlman/Ashkenazy performance the best. Their choice of dynamics and tempi try to out-Romanticize this Romantic music, and it works pretty well. Small wonder it was chosen as one of EMI Classics' Great Recordings of the Century.

Finally, for Sonata No. 3 in D Minor, Op. 108, I go back to Zukerman/Barenboim. It's a close call, and in fact I think the third sonata was the best for each of the three recordings. But while I liked the dynamics of Perlman/Ashkenazy in the second sonata, it was too much for the third sonata.

I haven't given the viola sonatas as much playing time as I'd like, so I'll devote more time to them and report back soonest.

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