Brahms had already declared to his long-suffering publisher Simrock that he was done with the business of composition before producing these, his final pieces of chamber music. He was inspired by the clarinettist Richard Mühlfeld, a player in the court orchestra of Meiningen, where Hans von Bülow conducted the composer’s music including all the symphonies. Mühlfeld’s breath control and superb melodic sensitivity evidently reawakened in the composer the long-breathed melodies which mark out his chamber music throughout his career, but Brahms soon declared that the sonatas could just as well be played on the viola, perhaps with one eye on his royalties from Simrock, but violists have been glad to seize on their ‘own’ Brahms ever since.
Melancholy is perhaps inevitably the major key of both sonatas – Brahms had been drawn to express autumnal loneliness even 40 years before – but they are not gloomy works, and are built with undimmed ingenuity as masterfully organic structures in which the usual contrast of first and second themes is forsaken for the kind of continuous variation which Arnold Schoenberg could justly and admiringly describe as ‘musical prose’.
With her unforgettably resonant and plangent contralto, Sara Mingardo has graced the world’s stages and halls, espeically in Baroque repertoire as a regular collaborator with Rinaldo Alessandrini and Concerto Italiano. Here she joins Luca Sanzò and Maurizio Paciariello in the two songs which were first published a decade prior to the viola sonata, though the Geistliches Wiegenlied (Sacred Lullaby) dates back to 1863, as a wedding present for his friend Joseph Joachim to the soprano Amalie Weiss. He added Gestillte Sehnsucht (Satisfied Longing) 20 years later when the couple were about to divorce, causing a rift between the two musicians that would only be healed in 1887 after Brahms had written his last orchestral work, the Double Concerto, with parts for Joachim’s violin and a semi-autobiographical one for the cello. Both songs speak of yearning – erotic and spiritual – with an almost Straussian intensity of expression.
This new recording contains Brahms’ complete music in which the viola plays a solo part: the two Sonatas Op. 120 and the 2 Gesänge Op. 91, for alto, viola and piano.
Brahms’ two viola sonatas are masterworks of his late style: the perfect handling of the sonata form sets the structure for autumnal reminiscenses and melancholic introspection, alternated by either passionate or tender interludes.
Beautiful performances by violist Luca Sanzo and pianist Maurizio Paciariello, who made an excellent recording of Hindemith’s Viola Sonatas for Brilliant Classics (BC94782): “Strong performance….a real winner” (Musicweb).
A special treat is the voice of Sara Mingardo in the Zwei Gesänge, one of the foremost altos of today, who sung with Claudio Abbado, Riccardo Chailly, Myung-Whun-Chung, Rinaldo Alessandrini.