Many thanks to Strad Magazine for inviting me to write a blog post on this project! Read it here: “Forgotten by Violinists: Brahms’s Op. 120 Sonatas”
Huge thanks are due to our wonderful collaborators on this project: producer Péter Aczél, sound engineer Viktor Szabó, and BMC Records label manager Tamás Bognár. Thanks also to Márton Kerékfy, who wrote the booklet notes and László Huszár designed the beautiful cover art.
Press releases and photos from the recording session are available in the online Press Kit.
Photo credit Krisztina Csendes
Brahms & Dohnányi on BMC Records – Out on 6 November, 2020!
As we get ready to share this project, I’ve been reflecting on how we got started and the journey from discovery to finished album. I have vivid memories of our first rehearsals of the Dohnányi sonata for a concert in Budapest several years ago. How enchanted we were by his glowing sound world and charming turns of phrase! There was a feeling of emerging from the far side of a magical rabbit hole as we made our way through his most ear-bending modulations. Especially vivid are the memories of moments when we started to enjoy the ride, trusting that we would come out of every harmonic scrape, James Bond-style, only slightly dusted up. But above all, I remember how the eloquence of the music touched us: Out of the opening three-note motive (D#–E–C#), Dohnányi weaves an epic journey, tendril by musical tendril, until these three notes work themselves so far into your psyche that you feel they must have always been there.
The idea of recording this gem of a sonata came up surprisingly early in those first rehearsals. But the idea got stuck on a crucial question: What to pair it with? We quickly rejected most of the obvious choices (Strauss, Janacek, etc.) because none quite complemented the qualities we most wanted to bring out, namely Dohnányi’s personal voice, his meticulous craft, and that distinctly late-summer feeling of nostalgia for summer itself which the late-romantics did so well—and which suffuses this sonata.
Then, by pure happenstance some months later, I noticed an announcement that Bärenreiter would re-publish the forgotten violin versions of Brahms’s Op. 120 clarinet sonatas. The link between the two composers is well known (Brahms championed the young Dohnányi’s first piano quintet in Vienna), but in these sonatas it feels as if Dohnányi picks up where Brahms left off. As Márton Kerékfy has so eloquently written in the booklet for this recording, “the late style of Brahms was Dohnányi’s musical mother tongue.” A short phone call to Dániel later, it was decided.
If you ask any violinist or music lover, they will most likely agree that Brahms wrote just three violin sonatas (Op. 78, Op. 100, Op. 108). The violin version of the Op. 120 sonatas have been completely ignored by violinists and remained out of print for over a century until 2016. Since then, a few violinists have picked them up and a recent recording challenges this assumption with its title: “Brahms—The Five Sonatas for Violin and Piano.” It’s a good headline, but I think the music tells a more complex story—not unlike the multiple layers and truths that so often coexist in Brahms’s sense of rhythm and narrative. When playing Brahms I find myself asking questions such as: Is the music in two or three? Dancing or crying? — and the answer is usually: Yes, and more.
The Sonatas Op. 120 (in F minor and E-flat major) date from 1894, shortly after Brahms came out of self-imposed retirement in order to write for clarinetist Richard Mühlfeld. “No one could play the clarinet more beautifully than Herr Mühlfeld does here,” he rapturously wrote to Clara Schumann. After hearing Mühlfeld herself, Clara replied, “it’s as if he were created for your work. This profound simplicity, and the subtlety of his interpretation!”
The genre of the clarinet sonata was brand new (and surprising, as attested to by remarks and reviews from the time), and playing the viola was also not yet thought of as a distinct pursuit from playing the violin. Although the timeline is not clear, Brahms soon envisioned a viola version of the sonatas, and shortly after in February 1895 sent a teasing letter to his publisher about yet a third version: “Since you do not care for original works, but only for arrangements—I say at once that immediately after the first issue I intend to make an edition for violin, for which some things would have to be changed—thus an independent edition.” By the end of July, 1895, all three versions had been published.
Although the Op. 120 sonatas were played by violinist Marie Soldat-Roeger and also by Joseph Joachim, who otherwise shunned transcriptions, should we really call these “violin sonatas”? Or is the DNA of the (mostly) vibrato-less clarinet so embedded in the writing that they can only be thought of as loving transcriptions of clarinet sonatas?
The chance to explore these questions and their musical implications on tempo, character, vibrato, and so much more, proved irresistible! The challenge of navigating between the three instrumental identities, each with its distinct voice, became an essential part of the rehearsal process (instruments were borrowed, friends consulted), and a source of constant inspiration. The beauty is inseparable from the ambiguity.
It is often said that these masterly late works have no extra notes—which they really don’t. And yet the music itself doesn’t know this or have that retrospective confidence as it unfolds. Over the process of making the recording, we returned again and again to the searching quality, sometimes turbulent, and sometimes child-like in its innocence, that suffuses these sonatas. I try to keep that thought fresh, even now that the recordings are “in the can,” as the saying goes—a constant reminder of what an intimate and vulnerable thing it was for Brahms, and indeed for anyone, to put notes on a page.
October 8, 2020
Dohnányi and Brahms Sonatas on BMC Records
Sign-up to hear a sample and hear about the launch!
I’m excited to announce a new recording of Dohnányi’s wonderful and mercurial Sonata and the two Brahms Sonatas Op. 120 (in the published version for violin made by Brahms himself) with pianist Dániel Lőwenberg.
Not many people know that these eloquent sonatas from late in Brahms’ life were originally published for violin and piano alongside the famous versions for clarinet and viola (it was a clarinetist who inspired the sonatas and Brahms’ return to composing after retirement, after all) and viola. Violinist Joseph Joachim played both the viola and violin versions in his recitals.
The recording will be released in fall 2020 by BMC Records in Budapest, and while it is not yet possible to order the recording directly from BMC, you can sign-up below to be the first to know when it is released.
May 20, 2020
2020 Birdfoot Festival Cancelled
Until recently, we were putting the finishing touches on Birdfoot 2020. I was so excited to share the news (and all of the music) with you.
The cancellation of a music festival is undeniably “small potatoes” at the moment. And yet it feels inseparable from all of the other concerts that have been canceled and all the music that is not being made. It also feels symbolic of the economic devastation that musicians—and so many others—are experiencing.
Heartfelt thanks to all of Birdfoot’s friends, fans, musicians, and volunteers. Your support brings this music to life.
Read the full letter and find out more about what Birdfoot has been able to do (thanks to you!) at www.birdfootfestival.org. There’s also a short video of music that would have been performed during Birdfoot 2020, featuring isolated musicians, Beethoven’s ‘Pastoral’ Symphony (and a cactus).
April 19, 2020