Colin Clarke for Fanfare Magazine – Copyright © 2023 by Fanfare Inc.
When historical and analytical musicology go hand-in-hand with a sky-high performance level, the results can be beyond compare. Such is the case here. By “historical musicology,” I refer to the use of original instruments as well as using sources as clean as possible; with “analytical musicology,” I refer to the deep study and resultant interpretation of those scores, as manifested via performance. The prevalent lack of deep analytical thought in contemporary performance has long been a bane of my existence, so it is so refreshing to encounter this release. Many collectors will have many, many performances of these pieces, and of course will have their time-honored favorites. (Who doesn’t love Oistrakh?) But Johannes Leertouwer and Julian Reynolds’s disc needs to be heard, no matter how many recordings of this music populate your shelves.
The big change here is from vibrato to portamento. Listen to the opening violin phrase of the Third Sonata (op. 103) for the perfect example of how this reframing happens. The choice of instruments, too, is carefully considered: Reynolds on an 1857 straight-stringed Blüthner grand, and Leertouwer on a 1619 Amati. The balance between the two is suddenly perfect, with no danger of the piano overpowering the violin (as one might find with a titanic Steinway of today). Clarity, too, is ideal from the Blüthner, with all lines being crystal clear. A firm bass (yet never boomy) helps. Another aspect is rubato, which is freely added. It works beautifully, always sounding perfectly stylistic. The Adagio of the First Sonata takes on nobility without resorting to the Sturm und Drang modern instruments might espouse.
Little details as well as the global outlook are what make the difference. The care with which the players present the final chord of the first movement of op. 78 is a case in point. The interpretation lives to the last note, and indeed beyond. The expansive finale is blessed with a sense of calm exploration that seems first cousin to the exquisite A Major of the first movement of the Second Sonata (op. 100). Allegro amabile is the marking, and the sense of welcoming is palpable here. Here, rubato comes into its own, with the music swaying gently. It is fascinating to hear the Blüthner, as Reynolds makes the melodies positively sing; and likewise how portamento can be used (towards the end of the movement) to heighten expressive tension in ascending phrases heading towards a harmonic arrival.
Any thought that expressive weight might be lost through the use of informed performance and authentic instruments is dashed firmly to the rocks in the Second Sonata’s central Andante tranquillo. Tranquil this most certainly is, a place of divine reflection. And how light is the Vivace section: This is revelatory, the stuff dreams are made of. The finale opens with the violin, low, guttural and rich, followed by the piano response legato and lyrical. Reynolds’s sense of cantabile is almost equal to that of Leertouwer—quite an achievement, given that his piano is a period percussion instrument.
I previously mentioned the use of portamento at the opening of the Third Sonata; there is so much more to this performance, though. Brahms’ textures become far more varied on the Blüthner, with dynamics sometimes disappearing down almost to nothing. With such a fine basic pulse, Leertouwer and Reynolds can afford some give and take here, and Brahms’s mysteries deepen accordingly. Leertouwer’s violin almost sounds like a viola or high cello at the opening of the Adagio, delivering the blissful, inspired melody with a sure sense of style; both players also track Brahms’s harmonic developments in this movement (there are many) to perfection. The fragility of Leertouwer’s stopping is heartbreaking here. Rarely has the third movement sounded so playful and yet so deep, with the piano arpeggiations surely reaching over to the late sets of Klavierstücke of opp. 116–119. There is no doubt that caution is thrown to the wind in the final Presto agitato, a performance of great drive and yet, as always on this disc, delivered with supreme clarity. The piano’s chordal passage is interesting, as the tonal profile of the instrument allows one to hear the inner parts so much better, which makes dissonances so much more sweet sorrow.
Everything is thought through on this release, down to extended gaps between sonatas. Given the level of thought and research, it is imperative this disc be recognized for its musicological importance as well as relished for its musical qualities.