Classical CD Reviews

BRAHMS: Viola Sonata in F Minor; SCHUBERT: “Arpeggione” Sonata in A Minor; FRANCK: Sonata for Violin and Piano (arr. for viola) – Tabea Zimmermann, viola/ Kirill Gerstein, p. – Myrios Classics

Zimmermann and Gerstein collaborate in Volume 2 of their Sonatas for Viola and Piano series, here a resonant exploration of three Romantic staples.

Published on December 29, 2012

BRAHMS: Viola Sonata in F Minor; SCHUBERT: “Arpeggione” Sonata in A Minor; FRANCK: Sonata for Violin and Piano (arr. for viola) –  Tabea Zimmermann, viola/ Kirill Gerstein, p. – Myrios Classics

BRAHMS: Viola Sonata in F Minor, Op. 120, No. 1; SCHUBERT: “Arpeggione” Sonata in A Minor, D. 821; FRANCK: Sonata for Violin and Piano in A Major (arr. for viola) -  Tabea Zimmermann, viola/ Kirill Gerstein, p. – Myrios Classics MYR 008, 72:58 [Distr. by Allegro] ****:

The present collation represents volume two of the Zimmermann/Gerstein “Sonata for Viola and Piano” project; and although I harbor mixed feelings about transcriptions from composers’ original intentions, the playing more than compensates for any “puritan” reservations I defend. The Sonata in F Minor by Brahms retains the most “authenticity” of the group of selections, since its original 1894 conception for the clarinet – specifically for Richard Muehlfeld of the Meningen Orchestra – Brahms himself arranged for the range and technique of the viola. The tenor of the piece seems rife with “intimations of mortality,” quoting from Bach chorales as they appear in the St. Matthew Passion and in the Brahms oeuvre just one opus number later, in his Chorale-Preludes for Organ, Op. 122. The first four bars of the opening movement Allegro appasionato provide for each instrument enough germinal material to saturate the entire work with its essential melancholy and occasional glimmer of rhythmic life.

Tabea Zimmermann’s viola tone – an Etienne Vatelot instrument from 1980 – projects a generously haunted affect throughout, especially when complemented by Gerstein’s resonant Steinway D-274. Together, their incantations of late Brahms prove intelligent, alert, and warmly “regal,” to reiterate an epithet from my colleague Laurence Vittes.  Gerstein does yield to a tendency to “punch out” the more percussive passages in the keyboard part, but Zimmermann holds firm to a suavely molded line. The piece itself exerts a romantic quirkiness in mood, which I attribute – rightly or wrongly – to nostalgia in his old age for much of the Schumann sensibility in bi-polar affective shifts, as expressed in miniaturized melodic kernels and sequences. The Allegro grazioso plays like a fin-de-siècle waltz or laendler whose mood might recall the third movement of the F Major Symphony. The assertions of the Vivace contain humor and dark reminiscence at once, declaimed and sung with haunted persuasion by these attuned, gifted musicians.

Few are the chances that we will ever hear the 1824 “Arpeggione” Sonata in A Minor played on an original instrument, a kind of bowed six-string guitar. In 1871, when an authorized publication appeared, the instrument had long gone out of favor. The four-string viola has much adjustment to make to capture the harmonies and tone colors of the original concept, but Zimmermann’s rendition flows as easily as the more familiar cello incarnations. In her deeper registers, Zimmermann’s tone replicates the cello timbre with amazingly vibrant sonority. The strummed or pizzicato passages prove just as clear and articulate as those we would hear from Julian Bream’s chosen guitar.  The capacity for melodic beauty that Schubert possessed in even his most “occasional” pieces – this designed for his friend Vincenz Schuster – never falters, and Zimmermann often floats a phrase or even a held note with silken assurance: the entire E Major Adagio sings in the manner of an exquisite meditation. The fast notes of the A Major Allegretto may present a challenge to the viola, but the fluency of Zimmermann’s realization belies any sense of strain, and we hear only exalted inspiration, nobly rendered. The piano part sounds like a delightful accompaniment to one of Schubert’s numerous, enchanted lieder.

Zimmermann makes a point of preserving the 1886 Franck A Major Sonata as much as possible in its original violin register, the viola’s adding a richness of sonority to the musical ideas. More to the point, perhaps, Gerstein’s grasp of arpeggiated chords comes through the interwoven textures generated by the core motor impulses for this most “cyclical” of Romantic works, especially in the second movement Allegro. Franck himself authorized a version of the Sonata for Cello, so the transition to the viola seems natural. Even those melodies naturally assigned to the violin’s high G string do not suffer in translation. The plastic phrasing and smoky graciousness of Franck’s style communicates a burnished resonance through what find a captivating rendition of a most familiar salon staple.

—Gary Lemco




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