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BRAHMS: Sonata for Violin and Piano No. 1 in G major, Op. 78
Born Hamburg, May 7, 1833; died Vienna, April 3, 1897
Sonata for Violin and Piano No. 1 in G major, Op. 78
Composed during 1878-79; 28 minutes
A renowned concert pianist, Brahms wrote confidently and idiomatically for the keyboard. But he admitted that “it is a very different matter writing for instruments whose nature and sound one only has a chance acquaintance with.” Recognizing that his knowledge of the violin was imperfect, he often sought advice from his friend Joseph Joachim, the great Hungarian violinist and composer. The two men first met in 1853 in Hanover, where the 20-year-old Brahms was playing a concert with the violinist Eduard Reményi. “Never in the course of my artistic life,” Joachim recalled, “have I been more completely overwhelmed with delighted surprise than when the rather shy-mannered, blond companion of my countryman played one of his sonata movements of quite undreamed-of originality and power, looking noble and inspired the while.” The admiration was mutual. A quarter-century later, when Brahms finally sat down to write his first major solo works for the violin, he collaborated closely with Joachim.
Both the Violin Concerto and the Op. 78 Sonata—the first of three that Brahms would produce over the course of a decade—had their genesis in the summer of 1878. The concerto came to fruition that fall, with Brahms, spurred by the impending deadline of a New Year’s Day premiere, frantically revising up to the last minute. Even as he continued to fine-tune the concerto in the spring of 1879, he took up the sonata again and polished it off that June while vacationing in the mountain resort of Pörtschach in southern Austria. In contrast to the concerto, which silhouettes the soloist’s hot-blooded virtuosity against the resplendent panoply of the orchestra, the G-major Sonata is intimate and conversational in tone. Yet the two works have much in common, sharing a mood of tender and slightly bittersweet lyricism.
The Vivace ma non troppo features one of Brahms’s loveliest themes, a wistful melody that glides down an octave and then rebounds, as the violin weaves wispy tendrils around the piano’s slow-moving chords. The lilting dotted figure (long-short) that we hear in the opening bars recurs throughout the sonata as a unifying motif, its character now relaxed and hesitant, now strong and surging. Shifting patterns of duple and triple meters—one of Brahms’s hallmarks—impart a restless vitality to the music.
The central Adagio is a majestic essay in E-flat major with a darkly urgent, sharply articulated midsection. Brahms composed it in memory of Clara and Robert Schumann’s son Felix, who had died of tuberculosis earlier that year. “My pen is poor, but my heart beats warmly and gratefully, and in spirit I press your hand,” a deeply touched Clara wrote to Brahms. The sonata’s third movement, marked Allegro molto moderato, harks back to Brahms’s 1873 setting of “Regenlied” (“Rain Song”), in which a gentle summer shower reawakens dreams of childhood. The violin takes its cue from the melody of Brahms’s song, while the piano mimics the dancing patter of raindrops. Amid echoes of the first two movements, the finale gradually wends its way back to G major, and the sonata ends, as it began, with a tender sigh.
© 2012 Harry Haskell
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BRAHMS: Sonata for Viola and Piano No. 1 in F minor, Op. 120, No. 1
Sonata for Viola and Piano No. 1 in F minor, Op. 120, No. 1
Composed in 1894; 23 minutes
Originally conceived for clarinet and piano, the F-minor Sonata of 1894 and its companion in E-flat major, Op. 120, No. 2, constitute Brahms’s swan song in the field of instrumental chamber music. (The Four Serious Songs, written in the shadow of his beloved Clara Schumann's illness and death, would follow two years later.) In both their burnished instrumental colors and their thematic material, the sonatas epitomize the nostalgic, “autumnal” spirit that emerged ever more forcefully in the composer’s later years. Like the Clarinet Trio, Op. 114, and the Clarinet Quintet, Op. 115, written in 1891, the two Op. 120 sonatas were inspired by the extraordinary artistry of Richard Mühlfeld, the principal clarinetist of the excellent court orchestra in Meiningen. With the composer’s blessing, violists have enthusiastically laid claim to them as well. Brahms’s affinity for the viola, whose dark, velvety timbre had always seemed ideally attuned to his muse, was matched by his late-life love affair with “Fräulein Klarinette.”
The Allegro appassionato of the F-minor Sonata opens with a lyrical but portentous theme enunciated by the piano in parallel octaves, which the viola picks up and elaborates in broad, sweeping phrases. The music’s growing urgency soon dissolves into plaintive introspection, and the fluid interplay between these contrasting moods gives the movement much of its richness and poignancy. In the Andante un poco adagio, the viola sings a sweetly sighing melody that descends stepwise, then climbs back valiantly before resuming its downward trajectory. The soft pulses in the piano accompaniment blossom into cascading arpeggios and rocking figures. The music is spellbinding in its simplicity and emotional directness.
Brahms might well have continued to mine this vein of tender resignation. Instead, he charted a new course in the Allegretto grazioso: the winsome theme in A-flat major radiates warmth, with its lilting triple meter and phrase endings that bend upward hopefully, like flowers stretching toward the sun. The final Vivace is similarly lighthearted, as playful harmonically as it is rhythmically. A bright peal of repeated notes in the piano ushers in a buoyant, swaggering viola melody in duple time that is repeatedly interrupted, rondo style, by contrasting episodes in swaying triplets. By the end of the movement, the sonata’s somber F-minor tonality has been left far behind, transmuted into a joyous major-key affirmation.
© 2012 Harry Haskell
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BRAHMS: Sonata for Violin and Piano No. 2 in A major, Op. 100
Sonata for Violin and Piano No. 2 in A major, Op. 100
Composed in 1886; 20 minutes
In the seven years that separated his first and second violin sonatas, Brahms added a clutch of major works to his chamber music portfolio, including the second and third piano trios (in C major and C minor), the Cello Sonata No. 2 in E-flat major, and the first of his two brightly exuberant string quintets, Op. 88 in F major. All are the products of mature and unostentatious mastery. The muscular lyricism that characterized much of Brahms’s earlier chamber music has receded into the background. In its place is a more restrained, but no less compelling, mixture of tenderness and strength.
The first movement of the A-major Sonata—marked, somewhat unusually, Allegro amabile—exudes the relaxed give-and-take of a companionable dialogue. The pianist introduces a lilting four-bar melody, whereupon the violinist echoes the final phrase, as if to say, encouragingly, “Yes, I’m listening. Go on.” After two or three more false starts, the violin takes up the theme and runs with it. From then on the two instruments pass the ball back and fourth, now lightheartedly, now in earnest, always careful to avoid upstaging each other. The amiable repartee continues in the Andante tranquillo, with slow and quick sections alternating in ABABA form. The main theme of the concluding Allegretto grazioso, like that of the first movement, surges upward in rising arcs before returning to rest at its starting point.
Echoes of Brahms’s art songs pervade this gracefully lyrical score. (Hovering in the background, perhaps, is the blithe spirit of the young contralto Hermine Spies, the object of the 53-year-old composer's latest infatuation.) Brahms’s friend Elisabeth von Herzogenberg described the sonata as being “constructed in the plainest possible way from ideas at once striking and simple, fresh and young in their emotional qualities, ripe and wise in their incredible compactness.” The premiere took place in Vienna on September 2, 1886, with Brahms at the piano and Joseph Hellmesberger on the violin. According to Brahms’s biographer, Max Kalbeck, Hellmesberger’s “playing had the hot breath and the agitated pulse of human passion, his violin the ethereal tone of an angel’s voice.”
© 2012 Harry Haskell
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BRAHMS: Scherzo for Violin and Piano in C minor, WoO 2 posth.
Scherzo for Violin and Piano in C minor, WoO 2 posth.
Composed in 1853; 6 minutes
This singular, and singularly appealing, movement was the first fruit of Brahms’s long and intimate friendship with Joseph Joachim. The two men met in April 1853, at the instigation of Joachim’s fellow violinist Eduard Reményi, and struck up a correspondence that lasted until Brahms’s death. Indeed, the Scherzo is one-fourth of a musical homage to Joachim: the cryptically named, and rarely heard, “F-A-E” Sonata, written in 1853 but not published until 1906. (Julian Rachlin and Itamar Golan will play the entire sonata on December 8.)
The three letters stand for “Frei aber einsam” (“Free but lonely”), the cri de coeur (literally, “cry from the heart”) that Joachim—a bachelor not by choice but by the necessity imposed by his life as a touring virtuoso—had adopted as his personal motto. Brahms’s little Scherzo is the third movement of this hybrid sonata; Schumann himself contributed the second and fourth movements, his pupil Albert Dietrich the first. Although their authorship was tactfully concealed, it’s said that Joachim readily identified Brahms’s stylistic fingerprints. The music’s impetuous lyricism and vigorous cross rhythms are typical of his youthful genius.
© 2012 Harry Haskell
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One of the most exciting and respected violinists of our time, Julian Rachlin has captivated audiences around the world with his distinctively rich sound and superb musicianship. He has also established himself as a leading viola player, festival director and, most recently, conductor.
This past summer marked the 12th anniversary of Mr. Rachlin’s internationally renowned “Julian Rachlin & Friends” festival, a platform for creative projects involving leading musicians and actors, held in Dubrovnik, Croatia. Two months ago, Mr. Rachlin gave the world premiere of Krzysztof Penderecki’s Double Concerto for Violin and Viola with violinist Janine Jansen and the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Mariss Jansons, at the Musikverein in Vienna; the work was written for Mr. Rachlin.
Upcoming orchestral appearances by Mr. Rachlin include the Mariinsky Orchestra with Valery Gergiev, the Israel Philharmonic with Zubin Mehta and Christoph von Dohnanyi, the Orchestre national de France with Semyon Bychkov, the Orchestre national de Lyon with Leonard Slatkin and the London Philharmonic Orchestra with Andrey Boreyko.
These 92nd Street Y performances are part of Mr. Rachlin and Mr. Golan’s presentation of the Brahms violin and viola sonatas cycles around the world, with other recitals in such venues as the Tel Aviv Museum, the Royal Concertgebouw in Amsterdam and the Golden Hall of the Musikverein. Mr. Rachlin will also be both conductor and soloist with the Israel Philharmonic, the Kremerata Baltica, the Lucerne Symphony, the Sinfonica Heliopolis and the Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra.
Mr. Rachlin’s recordings for Sony Classical, Warner Classics and Deutsche Grammophon have all met with great acclaim. His recent discs include Brahms’ Violin Concerto and Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 3 with the Bavarian Radio Symphony, chamber music by Shostakovich and Bach’s Goldberg Variations transcribed for String Trio. Mr. Rachlin also receives recognition for his charity work as a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador and his educational outreach.
Born in Lithuania, Julian Rachlin immigrated to Vienna with his family when he was three years old. He gained international acclaim overnight by winning the “Young Musician of the Year” Award at the Eurovision Competition in Amsterdam while in his early teens. He then became the youngest soloist ever to play with the Vienna Philharmonic. Mr. Rachlin has been on the faculty of the Konservatorium at the University of Vienna since 1999.
Mr. Rachlin plays the 1704 “Ex-Liebig” Stradivari, on loan to him courtesy of the Dkfm. Angelika Prokopp Privatstiftung. He also plays the 1786 viola by Nicola Bergonzi, on loan to him courtesy of Dmitry Gindin, London. His website is julianrachlin.com
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For more than two decades, pianist Itamar Golan has been partnering with many of the foremost instrumentalists of our time, making him one of the most sought after pianists of his generation and earning him critical acclaim around the world. Born in Vilnius, Lithuania, Mr. Golan immigrated to Israel with his family when he was one year old. There he began his musical studies, and at the age of 7, he gave his first recital in Tel Aviv. Through scholarships from the America- Israel Cultural Foundation, Mr. Golan continued his studies at the New England Conservatory in Boston.
Since his earliest years, Mr. Golan’s passion has been chamber music. He has performed with violinists Ida Haendel, Schlomo Mintz, Vadim Repin and Maxim Vengerov; violist Tabea Zimmermann; cellists Matt Haimovitz and Torleif Thedeen; clarinetists Martin Frost and Sharon Kam; soprano Barbara Hendricks, and many others. He made his 92nd Street Y debut in 1993 with Mr. Mintz and has also appeared here with Mr. Vengerov and violinist Sergiu Schwartz.
Mr. Golan has also been engaged as soloist by such major orchestras as the Berlin and Israel philharmonics under Zubin Mehta, the Royal Philharmonic with Daniele Gatti, the Filharmonica della Scala and Vienna Philharmonic with Riccardo Muti, and the Philarmonia Orchestra with Lorin Maazel. He is a frequent participant at many prestigious international music festivals, including Salzburg, Verbier, Edinburgh, Lucerne, Tanglewood and Ravinia, and he has made numerous recordings for labels such as Deutsche Grammophon, Warner Classics, Decca, Teldec, EMI and Sony Classical.
From 1991 to 1994, Mr. Golan was on the faculty of the Manhattan School of Music, making him one of the youngest teachers ever to serve there. Since 1994, he has been professor of chamber music at the Paris Conservatory.
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