Masterclass: Julian Rachlin on Brahms's Viola Sonata in F minor
The Lithuanian-born violinist and violist discusses technical preparation, character and colour in the first and second movements of op.120 no.1
This sonata was one of Brahms’s last works, inspired by Richard Mühlfeld, a clarinettist in the orchestra in Meiningen, Germany. It was originally for clarinet, but Brahms wrote the viola version himself, revising it only slightly to suit the instrument. Violists claim it as a viola sonata; clarinettists think it’s theirs! I’ve listened to many clarinettists perform it, to hear their musical ideas, but I don’t think we as violists need to base our interpretations in any way on the clarinet version. Either way we must thank Brahms: we don’t have many viola works from the earlier great composers, so his two op.120 sonatas are extremely important for us.
For me, finger preparation is a very important element of violin and viola playing. Where possible, the first finger should at all times be on the string, especially during practice, for intonation reasons. I am strictly against playing with the first finger waving in the air above the fingerboard (and I see this all the time), because for string players the first finger is the foundation of everything. It is fine to break this rule consciously, perhaps if you want to open up the first finger because your hand feels locked, or because it helps you to express the music in a certain way, but as a basic rule the first finger should always be down. In bar 27 of the first movement, for example…