Brahms for lunch at St.Andrew’s-on-The-Terrace

BRAHMS – Sonata for Viola and Piano in F Minor Op.120 No.1
(transcription by the composer of the Sonata for Clarinet Op.120 No.1)
Zwei Gesänge Op.91 (Two Songs for Voice, Viola and Piano)

Peter Barber (viola)
Linden Loader (mezzo-soprano)
Catherine McKay (piano)

St. Andrew’s on-The-Terrace, Wellington

Wednesday 12th July, 2017


As a counter to the day’s wintry woes, the music of Johannes Brahms provided an interlude of gentle autumnal rest and refreshment, with the first of the two late clarinet sonatas (here performed in the version for viola made by the composer), and the two songs which make up Op.91, Zwei Gesänge for voice, viola and piano. Both compositions occasioned interestingly flavoured associations, if of a diametrically opposed nature. One of the Zwei Gesänge in particular became intertwined with goings-on involving accusations of illicit amatory activities and a threatened marriage breakup on the part of friends of the composer.

Brahms had formed a student relationship with the brilliant young violinist Joseph Joachim, through him meeting the Schumanns, Robert and Clara, an association well-known to music history. In 1863 Joachim married Amalie Schneeweiss, a well-known mezzo-soprano, a marriage which produced six children, among them a son named Johannes, for whom Brahms wrote a cradle song Geistliches Wiegenlied (Spirits’ Lullaby). Things continued in this vein, with Joachim’s continued support for Brahms reflected in the dedication by Brahms of his 1878 Violin Concerto to Joachim, until the early 1880s, when Joachim accused his wife of having an affair with Fritz Simrock, a well-known music publisher. Alarmed by his friend Joachim’s paranoia and believing Amalie to be innocent, Brahms rewrote the lullaby as a new song Gestille Sehnsucht (Stilled longing), presenting it to the couple in the hope that it would help repair the rift.

Joachim persisted, however, and filed divorce proceedings against his wife, forcing the composer to write a letter testify on Amalie’s side, one which she used in court as evidence of her innocence. The incident cause a rift between Brahms and Joachim, one that was healed only when the composer wrote his Double Concerto for Violin and ‘Cello, in 1887. Undaunted, Brahms published the two songs as Zwei Gesänge Op.91 in 1884.

The other work we heard today came of a later, somewhat happier series of encounters Brahms had with the most remarkable clarinettist of his day, Richard Mühlfeld. Brahms had, by this stage, declared he would compose no more, but Mühlfeld’s playing awoke within the composer such ecstasies, that no less than four works involving the clarinet flowed from his pen. Brahms thought Mühlfeld the finest wind player he had ever heard, describing him to Clara Schumann as the “Nightingale of the orchestra”.

These works included the two Op.120 Sonatas for Clarinet and Piano, composed in 1894, of which we heard the first here, but played by the viola! Just why Brahms chose to transcribe both sonatas for viola after waxing so enthusiastically about Richard Mühlfeld’s playing is a subject open to conjecture – possibly, he felt no other player could do the works the same justice on the instrument, and therefore sought an alternative. The transcriptions are done with such skill that no-one need feel short-changed by the experience of having the clarinet replaced – except, perhaps for clarinettists!

Violist Peter Barber and pianist Catherine McKay, who took part in both of the concert’s offerings, began proceedings with the F Minor Viola Sonata Op.120 No.1, the piano beautifully preparing the way for the stringed instrument’s wide-ranging lines, both instruments then settling into the warmth and reassurance of each other’s company before girding their loins and attacking the terse dotted-rhythm counter theme with plenty of dynamism and risk-taking, the violist preferring to strive for the notes with a flourish at phrase-ends rather than take a safer, somewhat meeker course. After these agitations, the epilogue-like return of the viola’s opening theme, modulating briefly into F major before reasserting the more sombre ambience, was treated with wonderful inwardness by both musicians, making the most of the music’s dying fall.

Such lovely, long-breathed lines flowed from both instruments at the slow movement’s beginning, the viola not entirely comfortable with one of the upwardly reaching gestures, but making amends a second time round. How beautifully the piano led the way further INTO the music’s tremulous world and then through the exploratory modulations that led to the opening’s reprise, both players dovetailing their phrases beautifully, allowing the composer’s lyrical vein full expression before softly whispering the music’s end. Out of the silence the following movement’s dance-like exchanges seemed at first to slowly waken from a dream-like state before kicking in with trenchant tones and plenty of girth, making a fine contrast with the Trio, the piano delicate and watery, the viola nicely withdrawn and circumspect until the reprise of the dance.

An excited piano flourish and a shout of viola exuberance launched the finale – the playing was at times orchestral in energy, at other times questioning and circumspect, with a gorgeously Haydnesque “dead-end” passage at the halfway point that hung its head in embarrassment before a return of the opening sounded a regrouping, this time a light-footed skipping through textures with autumn leaves flying and fields and forests echoing with glad cries and excitable whoops of joy – surely one of Brahms’ happiest creations!

Rather less familiar to me were the two Op 91 songs, which proved as amenable lunchtime companions as did the Sonata. Mezzo-soprano Linden Loader joined Peter Barber and Catherine McKay in richly ambient performances, the singing and playing giving the first part of the opening Gestillte Sehnsucht plenty of space and stillness in which to whisper the world’s slumberings, before expressing the singer’s ceaseless longings with animated voice-and-instrument interplay, sentiments to which the players give plenty of life before allowing thoughts and words to rest.

The second song Geistliches Wiegenlied seemed less lullaby and more admonition of the elements, including a plea to the holy angels, the “winged ones” (Die ihr geflugelt) to “silence the treetops” and counter the “fierce cold” so that the sleeping child might not be disturbed. A parent’s angst was refected in the agitations, though the singer took comfort and strength in the child’s sleep – here, piano and viola most beautifully augmented the singer’s tones, which were fraught once again at “Fierce cold”, but again appeased by the instruments’ gradual “rolling away” in great roulades of tone and generous phrasing all the parent’s anxieties, the players giving us at the end a gently-wrought postlude of gentle peace.

Very great appreciation of all this was shown by a smallish but attentive and grateful audience.

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