Anne-Sophie Mutter: Brahms

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The chamber music of Johannes Brahms is full of the languor and even the rain showers of summer, as well as the browns, greens and golds of early autumn. This is hardly surprising, for Brahms was essentially a summer composer. He lived during the rest of the year in anticipation of finding some restful country resort where he could spend the precious summer months, walk in the woods and fields, relax, enjoy the sounds and scents of nature, compose to his heart’s content and see close friends when it suited him. His three sonatas for piano and violin, composed fairly close together, were all products of this kind of idyll.

Brahms was a pianist, but from 1850, when he met the Hungarian fiddler Eduard Reményi, he was never short of violinist friends, in particular that other notable Hungarian Joseph Joachim, at whom the sonatas were aimed. Brahms even discovered one violinist, Marie Soldat, who became one of his foremost interpreters. In view of his close friendship with Joachim it may seem strange that he did not produce a violin sonata until his Opus 78. The answer is that a number of attempts were destroyed by the self-critical composer. We know that among the early works Brahms showed to Joachim after their first meeting in 1853 was a violin sonata in A minor, which Brahms performed with Ferdinand David. It is lost, along with at least two others. Fortunately Brahms’s contribution to the co-operative “FAE” Sonata with which he, Schumann and Dietrich honoured Joachim, a fine Scherzo in C minor, survives.

Brahms spent the summers of 1877–9 at Pörtschach, a village on the Wörthersee in Carinthia, Austria, where he was very happy until too many other people began thronging there. As far as the violin was concerned, the main fruit of Pörtschach was the D major Concerto; and Malcolm MacDonald suggests that the superb Adagio of the G major Sonata, written in 1878 and 1879, may have been a reject from the Concerto. This Adagio, with its serious più andante section, is certainly weightier than the outer movements. The sonata-form Vivace opens with one of Brahms’s loveliest themes and has a songlike second theme; but it is the rondo finale which gives the work – which, because of its private character, occupies a very special place for Anne-Sophie Mutter – its sobriquet, “Rain” Sonata, as it uses elements of Brahms’s songs Regenlied and Nachklang to texts by Klaus Groth. The Adagio theme also returns three times. The violinist Robert Heckmann gave the first performance in Bonn on 8 November 1879 with his wife Marie Heckmann-Hertig (although Joachim played all three sonatas, he did not introduce any of them, mainly owing to the estrangement between him and Brahms lasting from 1880 to 1887).

Another village on a lake, Hofstetten near Thun in the Bernese Oberland of Switzerland, was Brahms’s choice for the summers of 1886–8 (a fountain commemorates his stays). The main lure was that his friend, the Swiss pastor and poet Josef Victor Widmann, lived in nearby Berne, but other friends including Klaus Groth visited and so did the young German contralto Hermine Spies, on whom both Brahms and Groth doted. The A major Violin Sonata took shape at Thun in 1886 and this time its nickname – “Meistersinger Sonata” – is less justified, despite a resemb­lance between its first theme and Walther’s Prize Song in Wagner’s opera. More certain is that the second subject derives from another of Brahms’s Groth settings, Wie Melodien zieht es mir, written for Fräulein Spies. Two other songs from this period, Immer leiser wird mein Schlummer and Auf dem Kirchhofe, haunt the finale, which combines both main themes in its coda. The central Andante tranquillo is interrupted several times by a Vivace with violin pizzicato, thus neatly combining slow movement and scherzo. The sonata was first performed in Vienna on 2 December 1886 by Joseph Hellmesberger Snr, with the composer at the piano.

Also sketched at Thun in 1886, the D minor Sonata was not completed until two years later, Brahms writing a separate scherzo to make four movements. The tautly constructed Allegro, dominated by its first theme and with a development built inexorably on a pedal point, is dramatic and so is the headlong, heroic finale, in equally concise sonata form. The inner movements are less lofty creations, a songful, virtually monothematic D major Adagio and a whimsical F sharp minor scherzo, which for Clara Schumann was “like a beautiful girl sweetly frolicking with her lover”. Dedicated to the pianist-conductor Hans von Bülow, one of Brahms’s favourite interpreters, the sonata was premiered in Budapest on 21 December 1888 by Jenő Hubay and the composer.

A feature of all three sonatas, especially the first, is the atmospheric use of violin double-stopping. That the pianist Brahms could surpass all his string-playing rivals in his mastery of such an idiomatic device was just one facet of his genius. In her conversation with Lambert Orkis, Anne-Sophie Mutter describes this aspect succinctly: “All the sonatas are equally perfectly shaped.”

Tully Potter