Classical CD Reviews

New classical music releases reviewed in detail by Gavin Dixon

Sunday, 28 November 2010

Brahms Violin Sonatas Geneviève Laurenceau

Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Sonatas for Violin and Piano
Sonata in G major Op.78 [26:15]
Sonata in A major Op.100 [20:43]
Sonata in D minor Op.108 [21:23]
Geneviève Laurenceau – violin
Johan Farjot – piano
Recorded at l'eglise de Bonsecours, Paris 15-19 August 2010 Stereo DDD
Zig Zag Territoires ZZT100802 [69:23]

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Brahms is one of those industrious composers who seems to have condemned many of his works to undeserved obscurity just through his sheer industry. Unless you are a violinist or a Brahms aficionado, the chances are that your knowledge of his Violin Sonatas is sketchy at best. But they are great works, fine examples of the composer's later chamber music. Brahms never had any hangups about presenting unadorned, simple music, even in his later years, and the beauty of much of this music stems from the uncluttered melodic style – a violin melody and a propulsive piano accompaniment, what more do you need? There are denser textures too, and plenty of contrapuntal episodes, although the clarity of texture is retained in these as well.
There are similarities between these works and the Schumann Violin Sonatas. Like Schumann, Brahms has conveniently left three contributions to the genre that fit neatly onto a CD, and like Schumann's, each sonata is a perfectly crafted chamber work. But, in an unusual reversal of their relationship, Brahms' Violin Sonatas are the more modest. They are structurally more conservative, texturally lighter, and are based primarily on melodic invention rather than structurally integrating development.
By the later years of Brahms' career, his writing for the violin and for the piano was as proficient as that of any 19th century composer. And while most of the textures in these sonatas sound straightforward, both players, and the violinist in particular, are being put through their paces in terms of technique. Brahms knows how to make the most of the lower end of the violin's range to create richness and depth. His use of the middle register is usually for very simple textures, which need to be straightforward without sounding naïve. And on the rare occasions he ventures about the stave, it is usually for dramatic effect, to give brilliance to a climax.
Geneviève Laurenceau is at her best in the lower register. All those rich, flowing passages on the G string come across magnificently, and her precision with the tuning of double stopping in the lower register is faultless. The simple midrange textures also come across well, thanks in part to her vibrato, which she is able to reduce to the point where it is barely perceptible for those plain melodic expositions. I'm less impressed by the high passages, which bring out a slightly unpleasant edge in her tone. But as I say, Brahms rarely ventures up there anyway.
Johan Farjot is a sympathetic pianist, always alert to the soloists changes of tempo and mood, both the subtle gradations and the immediate shifts. In general, he leaves all the drama to her and never competes for the limelight. That apparent subservience may be in part a result of the recording balance that favours the violin over the piano. That isn't usually a problem, but it can sometimes give the impression that the recording engineer knows better than either the composer or the performers how the instruments should interact. Whenever Brahms writes high pianissimo chords in the piano accompanying the violin in midrange, the piano seems very distant indeed. And given the discretion of the violin playing in these passages, the intervention at the mixing desk seems unnecessary.
In general, though, this is a good recording, and is worth hearing simply for the quality of the violin playing. Brahms' chamber music repertoire contains many works that are more ambitious and involving than these, but it is a real strength of this performance that the players don't try to make more of the music than the notes on the page can justify.
Gavin Dixon

This review first appeared at MusicWeb International:

1 comment:

  1. I would say that the important questions to ask for any recording of these sonatas are: 1. is the phrasing beautiful and the interpretation sustained correctly? and 2. are any passages, movements, so well played that they excel over the finest recordings and performances (that is, does this recording contribute anything new)? As regards 1., the answer is without doubt "yes". As regards 2., I would say that the First Movement of the G Major and the Second Movement of the A Major are perhaps like that in this recording.

    I would add that the Third Movement of the G Major is given a particularly appealing, "French" interpretation, suitably so, since its texture is like the music of Ravel or Debussy. Actually, the interpretations are throughout rather "French", and that is perhaps the distinctive contribution of this recording.