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Brahms Complete Violin and Viola Sonatas

Op38, 78, 100, 108, 120 Nos 1 and 2

(includes ‘cello Sonata no 1, Op 38 transcribed for viola by Vardi)

Emanuel Vardi (viola)
Nobu Wakabayashi (violin)
Kathron Sturrock (piano)

Portrait Classics PCL2103

A serviceable but essentially ordinary re-issue of CDs that first appeared on Pickwick. This issue invites comparison with the recent Avie set from Shlomo Mintz, which offer performances of extraordinary severity (which will also not please everyone) against the middle-of-the-road laxity of this one.

It is impossible to recommend the viola disc at all. Vardi had a distinguished career, which is here in its twilight. His tone is extremely harsh in the upper half of the register and makes the disc almost unlistenable to. Age is not always a barrier, look at Horowitz, or indeed Horzowski, whose richness of tone is striking in a recording of a recital made when he was 94, recently issued on BBC Legends.

Nor does the Op 38 ‘cello sonata transcribe particularly well. There are moments, such as just after 6’ in the first movement, where the higher register makes a string accompaniment swamp the piano melody. It could be argued that Brahms did not completely solve the problem of writing piano chamber finales till the compression of his later period. Here, where the string player takes one part of the fugue and the pianist two, there is some especially unpleasant and shrill playing from Vardi.

If you want virtuosity in the violin sonatas, Oistrakh / Richter in their classic account of Op 108 and Mutter / Weissenberg or Perlman/ Ashkenazy  on inexpensive reissues of all three are obvious examples of how to do it; the more ‘chamber’ approach from Osostowiecz and Tomes is unsurpassed, but Suk / Katchen is another famous disc in that vein. Wakabashi and Sturrock fal between two stools.

The single most irritating feature of Wakabayashi’s playing is her extremely heavy punctuation – the music comes to a full stop between sections and gives the whole disc a static feel. Perlman and Ashkenazy keep the music moving at all times (without playing faster), helped by Askenazy’s adopting a much more interesting musical persona than Sturrock. Mutter and Weissenberg do choose much faster tempi. And when, as at the start of the trio of Op 108, she makes a pronounced agogic accent, it makes clear sense in the flow of the music instead of just being stop and start.

Sturrock is always neat, efficient, but neither plays as a soloist nor enjoys the intimacy of rapport with the string player as we hear in the benchmark Osostowiecz / Tomes partnership. Her delivery of the very difficult passages, such as the finale of Op108 and the opening of the Op 120 scherzo is circumspect.

All the repertoire in this set has enjoyed many superb performances on record. Despite excellent recording and the attractive presentation characteristic of this series, I can’t think of any reason for buying this set.

Ying Chang