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 pianos 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 soloists role with a singing tune reminiscent of the second violin sonata. But throughout, the composers 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 todays 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 composers immortal legacy to humankind.