Leoš Janáček (1854-1928)
Sonata for Violin and Piano (1914)
Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)
Sonata for Violin and Piano No. 3 in D minor, Op. 108 (1888)
Béla Bartók (1881-1945)
Sonata for Violin and Piano No. 1, Op. 21, Sz. 75, BB 84 (1921)
Patricia Kopatchinskaja (violin), Fazil Say (piano)
rec. 2022, Teldex Studio, Berlin, Germany
Reviewed as a digital download from a press preview
Alpha 885 [72]

On this recording, we have two very different approaches to musical modernism flanking a classic of the Romantic era. However, as Arnold Schonberg suggested in his essay “Brahms the Progressive,” this great Romantic composer helped usher in the modern era by extending the bounds of harmonic freedom. Brahms’ Third Violin Sonata exhibits some of the unexpected harmonic modulations that Schoenberg cited in his essay. On the other hand, it is still firmly rooted in the Classical-Romantic tradition of the nineteenth century, with two solid sonata-allegro movements surrounding a slow movement and scherzo. 

Brahms’ first two violin sonatas are largely lyrical in nature. The composer’s plan for the Third Sonata was very different. Unlike the others, it is in four movements rather than three. It has a symphonic scope and drama not shared by the previous works. But while cast in the minor key, the character of this sonata seems more heroic than tragic. There’s an epic quality to the fiery declamations of the first movement, the jagged contours of the finale, cast in 6/8 time. The restless scherzo third movement (marked Un poco presto e con sentimento) adds little comfort. Only the tenderly reflective Adagio offers respite from the prevailing air of nervous energy that the sonata generates.

There is a similarly troubled character about the other two pieces on the program. Janáček’s sonata was penned in 1914, at the start of the First World War, and it seems to reflect the tension that all of Europe was feeling at the time. However, the style of the work is uniquely Janáček’s own. It has the strange aphoristic, even fragmentary quality of his mature works, with short melodic phrases stated, repeated, and then abandoned for a new idea. Like Bartók, Janáček was deeply influenced by the melodies and rhythms of his native land’s folk music, but it was so internalized as to become his own personal musical voice. One interesting bit of information that I gleaned from the notes to the present recording is that the more relaxed slow movement, Ballada, was written earlier than the others. Violinist Patricia Kopatchinskaja suggests, “it remains a foreign element. This movement needs warmth and beauty.” But then she adds, “the fierce, sick, and abnormal elements in the other movements appeal to me much more. It’s extreme music that needs a superhuman strength of soul.” Hence, I think, the connection to Brahms’ fierce and epic sonata.

Then there is Bartók’s sonata. It represents the composer at his most ruggedly modernistic. Dissonant, discordant, with constantly shifting rhythms, the piece is Exhibit A in the case against Bartók for some devotees of classical music. For me, the work has an internal logic, trajectory, and yes, even a sort of hard-edged beauty that appeals as much as Bartók’s later, more listener-friendly style.

I find that the team of Kopatchinskaja and Say capture the feral energy as well as beauty in both the Bartók and Janáček sonatas. I was equally impressed by the power and tenderness the performers bring to the Brahms sonata. Patricia Kopatchinskaja describes the beginning of this work as “a feather that curves its way through the air,” and I hear that delicate shaping of the musical line in her approach to the piece. I was interested to learn that the duo has been performing together since 2004 but was not surprised, hearing the perfect unanimity of approach to the music that they take.

These are as fine performances of the individual works as I’ve heard on disc. Offering a program of such different yet complementary pieces makes the release even more desirable. The recorded sound is just as powerful as the performances, but it’s not overbearing. There’s a nice sense of space and distance as well. I call this a success on all scores.

Lee Passarella

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