PRO-6215: Johannes Brahms: Sonatas for Viola & Piano, Opus 120

When this record was released, exactly 100 years had passed since the publication of Brahms’ two sonatas, Opus 120 in 1895. His final completed chamber works; originally conceived for clarinet and piano, they were arranged both for violin and piano, and for viola and piano by the composer. But whereas the violin versions have been largely ignored, the viola versions have become crown jewels in the violist’s repertoire; to the extent that today they are heard as often on viola as on clarinet.

As a solo instrument, the viola in the 19th-century had been largely eclipsed by its smaller cousin the violin, more for utilitarian reasons than for any lack of expressivity or soloistic virtuosity. Simply put, the higher range of the violin made it more adept at soaring over an orchestra or reaching the last row of seats in large concert halls, thus it received more attention as a solo instrument from composers. But in intimate chamber settings, the viola suffers few peers when called upon for expressivity, tonal variations or even virtuosity.

The sonatas themselves are highly distinctive one from the other. The first sonata (Opus 120, No. 1 in f-minor) offers a concerted style with the two instruments interwoven into a dramatic texture that is almost symphonic in style. Dramatically serious in essence and in mood at the outset, from the piano’s opening statement in octaves to the melancholically tender second theme of the first movement, the sonata gradually moves towards a happier tone throughout its four movements without ever relinquishing the inexorable equality of its two protagonists.

The second sonata (Opus 120, No. 2 in E-flat major) finds Brahms in a more relaxed mood. The first movement, Allegro amabile, grants the viola a soloist’s role with a singing tune reminiscent of the second violin sonata. But throughout, the composer’s mastery is evident, from his canonic treatment of the second theme to his melodic invention and consummate manipulation of the two instruments into a single texture in the development without ever losing sight of his tightly-constructed classical sonata form or amiable melodic content. Passion and drama, in the second movement with its noble chorale-like trio, and the unabashed melodic mastery in the variations of the third movement make the second sonata in no way inferior to the first.

While today’s compact-disc format would allow room for more music, Brahms has left us the singularly unified masterpiece of two sonatas in one opus which PROdigital Records presents in centennial celebration of its publication. It is our profound feeling that including another composition, while adding little to Brahms’ original inspiration, might easily distract from the absolute mastery over form, content and style manifested so happily in these sonatas; final testaments of their composer’s immortal legacy to humankind.

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