Brahms: Violin Sonatas 1-3 - Leertouwer, Reynolds
Challenge Classics CC 72964
Classical - Chamber
Brahms: Violin Sonatas 1-3
Johannes Leertouwer (violin)
Julian Reynolds (piano)
We made this recording in January 2023, one week before I defended my dissertation on historically informed performance practice of Brahms’s orchestral music at Leiden University and received my doctorate. The research had offered me the opportunity to re-investigate my ideas about contemporary performance style, particularly of 18th- and 19th-century repertoire. Over the course of the 4-year project, I had rehearsed, performed, and recorded the Brahms symphonies and concertos as a conductor. After so much reading, writing, and conducting, I found that I longed for the experience of applying what I had discovered as a violinist to find how it had changed my approach to Brahms’s chamber music. I called Julian Reynolds and asked if he would be willing to experiment with my findings. We had studied the Brahms violin sonatas together with Josef Suk in Vienna and Prague many years ago. We found a beautiful Blüthner grand piano of 1857 in the atelier of Andriessen pianos in Haarlem.
Our recording represents our desire to find the freedom to apply the 19th-century expressive tools of flexibility of rhythm and tempo, of expressive legato, portamento and vibrato that have been largely forgotten or perhaps discarded over the course of last century. These tools cannot simply be dusted off and re-implemented. As I argued in my dissertation, working with them requires re-inventing them. Portamento for example was a hotly debated subject throughout the 19th century. There is no single model or example of how to apply it today. The same can be said about vibrato. What we can say with certainty is that in the violin methods of Louis Spohr and later Joseph Joachim and Andreas Moser, portamento was named as the first and most important means of expression for string players, and vibrato was described as an ornament. When it comes to flexibility of tempo, we can be sure that the 19th-century concept of tempo was more flexible, and that modifications of tempo were much more frequent than in more modern times. We know that Brahms had a particularly free and flexible way of performing his own music. Brahms himself famously refused to give metronome markings, writing that he could not find a meaningful relationship between his flesh and blood and such a mechanical instrument, a feeling perhaps inherited from Beethoven. He also wrote that any “sane musician” would take a different tempo every week.
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Review by Adrian Quanjer - July 24, 2023
Choosing among the plethora of recordings of Brahms’s Violin Sonatas is an almost impossible task. From time to time, however, something catches your ear. This new Challenge Classics release, for instance. It is unlike anything else I’ve heard before. Reading the liner notes on how to play Brahms’s Violin Sonatas one might think that research by the Dutch violinist Leertouwer, focussing on “expressive legato, portamento and vibrato”, points to a typical scholarly approach. However, as Leertouwer argues in his doctorate dissertation, “There is no single model or example of how to apply it today”. It sets these Sonatas in a new light.
Many excellent performances have been recorded and we all have our preferences. But, true to his research, Leertouwer plays the Sonatas differently, giving them an unexpected, lovingly slant. In his reading, applying abundant portamento, I got a feeling as though I was listening to musical love letters. My phantasy ran away with it because, if so, who would then be the composer’s addressee?
Clara Schumann was more than happy with the Second Sonata “No work of Johannes has delighted me so completely. I was as happy with it as I haven’t been for a long time”. Could it be that Leertouwer, by implementing the fruits of his research, adds what may have been in Brahms’s mind when composing: His secret love for Clara? Much has been speculated about it and we may never know for sure the limits of the friendship, but it certainly is an intriguing thought.
There are no hints to that effect in the liner notes and it may well be that the sole purpose of this recording is to let us hear what Brahms’s Violin Sonatas sounded like in his time. A purely academic exercise with no ulterior motive. Also, because Brahms’s friend, Hans von Bülow, is the dedicatee of the Third Sonata.
I recommend that those interested listen for themselves. If I’m totally off the mark, you may well appreciate the way Leertouwer and his duo partner, Julian Reynolds, at the 1857 Blüthner grand piano perform so professionally and enthusiastically their fashion of these Sonatas whilst, maybe, conveying at the same time a glimpse of Brahms’s mindset. It does not replace any of my favourites. Still, I value it highly for what it is: An incomparable and well-researched view into the origin of these war horses of our classical repertoire.
As always, Bert van der Wolf is your guarantor of perfect sound.
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