JWR Articles: Live Event - Brahms: Violin Sonatas (Featured performers: Anne-Sophie Mutter, Lambert Orkis) - September 8, 2010 id="543337086">

Brahms: Violin Sonatas

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If Mount Pilatus could play

Nearly a month into the 2010 Lucerne Festival in Summer, the generally high level of performance took a decided turn upwards with the appearance by Anne-Sophie Mutter and Lambert Orkis, performing all three Brahms Sonatas for Violin and Piano.

From the very first measure of the opening “Allegro amiable” the ear was instantly engaged, transporting the mind to lofty heights of music making too rarely experienced; the instruments being mere conduits for the ideas, thoughts and emotions that the composer’s vivid imagination and painstaking craft brought together in such splendid fashion.

Hearing this pair of artists at work, it was easy to imagine that if Mount Pilatus wanted to play, it would have an ideal surrogate in Mutter. Her commanding presence, breathtaking range and constantly shifting colours, moods and views are at one with the spectacular, if humbling, landmark.

In the same vein, Orkis has much in common with Mount Rigi: not quite as imposing as its taller companion, yet well worth the visit to get a different glimpse at much of the same terrain—by his very presence, Mutter/Pilatus is able to soar even higher.

With so much pounding brilliance testing the mettle (and metal) of concert grand pianos these days, it’s a miracle of sound production to observe Orkis deftly release tone from the keyboard rather than push its mighty decibels into harsh reality.

For her part, Mutter’s fast vibrato and dextrous use of the entire bow is more apt to overpower her deferring companion, giving all listeners a much different canvas upon which to experience these ten movements of unforgettable art through a far different prism—much different from so many others before the public today.

Some aspects of these interpretations may not be universally savoured, but the overwhelming majority of the recreations infused with shared passion, intensity and drive made the announced program seem to vanish in a heartbeat, the proponents fitting each other like the proverbial glove.

Highlights aplenty:

  • The wonderfully understated “Allegro molto moderato” of No. 1 also featured the very first magical shared-silence (completely uninterrupted by the audience, staff or mechanical failure—the gunshot effect of a light bulb exploding earlier in the “Vivace ma non troppo,” startled everyone in the room, yet the intrepid duo went on without losing a beat, hoping for the best) of these concerts.
  • Mutter’s G-string unleashed (No. 3 “Adagio”) magnificently set the stage for the melodic line’s incredible yearning in the higher register which emerged soon after.
  • The double stops in all registers of the same movement weren’t far from the musical equivalent of Aare River’s twin channels running through Thun where much of this opus was created during the composer’s summer sojourns in Switzerland.
  • The rhythmic eruptions and, at several times (notably the “Allegro” of No. 3, but even more impressively in the few encores—“It Ain’t Necessarily So” was the New World showstopper) Orkis’ sonar and radar managed to catch, interpret and adjust to the violinist’s sudden shifts of speed so quickly that few would realize the potential danger that had been so artfully averted.

To be in the room with such dedicated, committed artists—clearly driven by the composer’s intent more than their own justifiable egos—renews the joy of concert-going.

Here’s to an outbreak of this level of performance in every hall on the planet. JWR

Historical Perspective

Sonatas Nos. 1 & 2 for Violin and Piano, Johannes Brahms
Igor Oistrakh, violin; Arthur Ginsburg, piano
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Five stars

The combination of Oistrakh’s supple, velvety tone and Ginsburg’s unfailing ability to match the violinist phrase for phrase give these performances a special air of consummate music making.

Op. 78 is awash in easy flowing moments, lovingly crafted. The “Vivace ma non troppo” is notable for Oistrakh’s sure ascent to the upper reaches as well as back-and-forth conversations that clearly speak the same language. The perfectly executed double-stop revelation of hope is marvellously surrounded the “Adagio’s” funereal atmosphere. The Finale would be better balanced with a tad more from the keyboard, but that deficiency may well be the result of long-ago recording techniques. Ginsburg is fearless in rendering a bone-dry accompaniment (where others can’t bear to truncate their sound) that is the perfect foil to the violinist’s marvellously crafted legato. The final, quiet “adieu” is a model of understatement and “less is more” both from the composer and the performers.

The A Major Sonata, composed in Thun, Switzerland in 1886 has generous portions of calmly lyrical lines that surely can trace the origins to the beautiful scenery and Brahms’ fully matured gifts. That hue informs much of the “Allegro amabile,” deftly balanced by sharply attacked octaves and dotted power in the violin-and-piano writing that becomes more luxuriant with every hearing of the first theme. When roles are reversed, Oistrakh reveals himself to be an able accompanist. The middle movement is a masterpiece of structure and colour with three bits of “Scherzo” interspersed between the gentle “Andantes”. The violin has a spectacular octave change-of-register that positively soars even as the brief interjections of pizzicato add yet another element of contrast. The closing “Allegretto grazioso” more than lives up to its name as both artists employ their superior understanding of harmonic direction and musical weight to the ultimate benefit of the listener. JWR

Between Performances

During the festival’s 38-day run, a wide variety of non-musical activities was sampled both in Lucerne and other parts of Switzerland. Because of the excellent local and inter-city transportation system, there’s plenty to see and do within a day’s reach and still be back in time for the next performance—Cultural Tourism at its best!

It’s easy to see why Johannes Brahms (amongst many other composers, artists and writers) spent time in Thun, famously writing the “Thun” sonata there. The landscape-dominating Thun Castle and Museum is as informative as it is the best view in town. JWR

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Featured performers - Anne-Sophie Mutter, Lambert Orkis
Historical perspective performers - Igor Oistrakh, Arthur Ginsburg
Sonata for Violin and Piano No. 2 in A Major, Op. 100 - Johannes Brahms
Sonata for Violin and Piano No. 1, in G Major, Op. 78 - Johannes Brahms
Sonata for Violin and Piano No. 3 in D Minor, Op. 108 - Johannes Brahms
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