Brahms — Sonata in F minor (viola and piano) Op.120/1
The Viola Sonatas: Johannes Brahms (1833 - 1897)
Sonata in F minor Op.120/1
I Allegro appassionato
II Andante un poco Adagio
III Allegretto grazioso
Sonata in Eb major Op.120/2
I Allegro amabile
II Allegro appassionato - Sostenuto
III Andante con moto – Allegro
The viola’s vital position in classical and romantic chamber music is unquestioned, its voice being that of the somewhat melancholy outsider, not the predominant violin, nor the venerated soulful cello voice, but truly a character of earthy solitude, and one which, trusted with the inner workings of music, might have just revealed a few very special things to the significant minds of music to whom this instrument appealed so much.
Brahms, as with Mozart before him, created magnificent string quintets which required not one, but two violas, thereby often being referred to as ‘viola quintets’. Brahms’ two great string sextets give full voice to the viola also. It is not surprising, therefore to learn that, although it was a clarinettist, Richard Mühlfeld (1856 – 1907), principal of the Meiningen Orchestra, who inspired the composer to return to writing chamber music in the last years of his life, the Sonatas opus 120 were arranged by Brahms to be performed on either clarinet or viola. Performers on both instruments hold these works in the highest regard to this day.
Composed as a pair, these two sonatas seem to belong together in infinitely more ways than simply their common opus number. The first sonata in F minor introduces us to a sombre, yet free spirit, in the first movement Allegro appassionato. There is an almost insatiable desire in the music to reach upwards, with phrases descending only to ultimately ascend. The development of the material gives rise however to a gentle, if melancholy slackening of spirit, before abruptly returning to a marcato boldness. The concluding music in the viola succeeds only in finishing on the 5th degree of the chord of F major, as the piano arpeggiates in an upward elevation.
The Andante un poco Adagio reveals special qualities of tenderness familiar to us through the music of Brahms, yet almost in possession of a Schubertian need to wander as if in a trance to distance musical keys. It creates a strong impression of repose but one which invites a dance in the form of the third movement Allegretto grazioso which, linked by the common musical key of Ab major, helps us appreciate the unifying force of Brahms’ conception. Opaque, chromatic harmony pervades the central section of this movement drawing the listener closer and contrasting with the Austrian Ländler or waltz character of its principal subject.
By no means a tendency in Brahms’ chamber music, the Finale Vivace is unashamedly boisterous - (Brahms’ inclination to conclude in more pensive character will be revealed by the last movement of the Sonata in Eb). Generosity and familiarity are felt through the recurring theme in Rondo form. He introduces very distinct themes between the returning principal theme, the second of which reminds us of the minor key character of the sonata’s opening. A bell-like chiming echoes the exuberance of the piano’s initial music - but in a distant vein - before determined character overflows once more, bringing the work to a victorious, rather than valedictory close, and setting the scene for the Sonata in Eb, and its reflective ebband-flow.
Allegro amabile is Brahms’ chosen tempo and character indication for the first movement of the Sonata in Eb. Perhaps some will recall the amabile direction of the first movement of the composer’s much loved Violin Sonata in A major; there is a common mood here - one of tenderness and gentleness. A new feeling of possibility and freedom enters our imaginations. The second subject is also more at peace than that found in the first movement of the F minor sonata. It too reaches upwards, but not in a way that creates longing, but rather, prayerfulness. This state gives way to a further musical subject of rhapsodic elation, and the three themes are combined improvisatorially. This tendency leads the music to a place of reflection, and an exploration characterised by arpeggios, or broken triads in the viola part. The intensity builds quickly and dramatically, however, and beyond the passing storm, sunshine of a most sublime radiance is returned to us as by the reprise of the opening melody. Brahms shows us the full magnitude of his inspiration. The broken triads find their eloquence once more in a tranquillo coda.
The central Allegro appassionato carries significant gravitas; this sonata contains just three movements, not four, as in the F minor sonata. The minor mode of Eb minor creates a textured hue, and an impassioned fervour. Its ¾ metre reflects the waltz of the third movement of the F minor sonata, but is somewhat mysterious this time. A Sostenuto central section in the radiant key of B major is both poised and heroic, and lends a central weight to the sonata.
Brahms’ love for thematic variation is given full reign in the concluding movement of this final sonata: Andante con moto. The theme’s gentleness, yet depth of feeling, is reminiscent of such similar character traits in Brahms’ late opus 117 intermezzi for solo piano. Writing to the violinist Joseph Joachim, Brahms once said ‘I sometimes ponder on variation form, and it seems to me it ought to be more restrained, purer…’ As the movement progresses, the music indeed does maintain a restraint. The musical material is not merely decorated, but rather distilled gently. A sudden Allegro heralds the concluding coda which swells and recedes. The breathlessness is briefly abstracted by a chromatic descent in both instruments but the combined forces of the piano and viola galvanise in one final ascent, to conclude these magnificent final chamber works of Johannes Brahms.
Feargus Hetherington© 2014