As a former clarinetist, I used to take umbrage with my viola colleagues who would deign to present the two clarinet sonatas (Op. 120 nos. 1&2) as rightfully in their domain of repertoire. Happily, having learned a thing or two about phrasing when hearing those stringed results, I soon abandoned that position and welcomed all comers. (Just imagine if Bach’s canon could only be performed as first written!)
And so I was eager to discover just how violist Barbara Westphal and pianist Christian Ruvolo might render Brahms’ Op. 78 violin sonata and Op. 38 cello sonata, a personal favourite having been weaned on Pierre Fournier and Rudolf Firkušný (DGG 139119).
As would have delighted the composer, there was an immediate feeling of equal partners as the G major sonata began. The inevitable register changes (the viola not soaring quite as high as the violin) mattered not a whit. When it was their turn, the dark triplets established a wonderful texture and mood. The brief moment of silence had its effect even as shades of Brahms’ second symphony worked into the elements. The second subject was nothing but radiant; the few portamenti were always tasteful, never sanguine.
The Adagio opened with a beautifully voiced statement from Ruvolo ushering in Westphal’s wonderfully phrased song without words. The dramatic development fired on all emotional cylinders before the piano’s pedal led the way to a heartfelt adieu.
The closing Allegro molto moderato felt like eavesdropping on an intimate chat. The only quibble being lack of complete unanimity between the performers as to how long (preferably short) the frequent 16th rests ought to be. That aside, most listeners will want to hit their replay button.
As the bridge between two Brahms, Andrea Clearfield’s Convergence immediately reminds the ear just how wondrously the combination of “original” viola and piano can be. From its lean, brooding opening where Westphal takes stage alongside an obviously sympathetic Ruvolo, the music gradually turns up its own heat, ever more intensive and loaded with slides and punctuating snaps along with arid-dry piano.
The feel is very cinematic; even as the warmth of Debussy finds it colouristic way into the mix before the viola truly sings a song for all ages on the way to stratospheric bliss then both amis gradually disappear into the night…
No luck at all with the cello sonata morphed to viola. There isn’t enough wood to make the case. Best of the unbalanced bunch is the Allegretto quasi Menuetto. The rest just feels wrong. JWR