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, I have written a G flat in brackets, in the rest. I put my first finger down on the A string here (although I don’t play the note with my bow), to prepare for the next bar. This helps to secure my intonation. In bar 30, the arrow from the final A flat indicates that you should leave your third finger on the string over the rest, so that you don’t have to search for the note again at the beginning of bar 33. Another example is in bar 40, where I place my first finger down on a D flat on the G string, in third position, to give me extra security.
In bar 93 of the first movement, I have written ‘sparen’ to indicate that the bow should be saved. Often people use too much bow, especially on the last three notes of this bar, when for me it should be the opposite. Even if a note is longer and requires more emphasis than others in the phrase – such as the A flat at the beginning of the bar here – it doesn’t need more bow. If you are driving a car and you want to start moving, you will put your foot on the pedal and the car will gradually accelerate. For me, the same is true for each new bow: the first note will use the least, the second a little more, a little more still on the third, and still more on the last. This system allows you to give the illusion of having a never-ending bow.
In both movements, think carefully about how much bow you want to use, how you are going to divide it, where, and why, and make a plan for yourself. Technical virtuosity is not about how fast you can play, but about analysing why you are playing something, at what speed and where in the bow. Thinking about these things at home will help you to organise your thoughts and govern the way you play in performance.
The passage from bar 147 of the first movement should sound like an organ. There are three strings involved here, and the D string is the most important. Don’t jump too much between the double-stops, but sink into the string and play them almost as very close broken chords; think of the D string as being the link that joins the A and the G strings. It should have quite a buttery feeling, just as for the hemiolas in the passage from bar 69. In both cases, emphasise the quaver (e) pairs but don’t accent them, to contribute to the very dense character of the music.
Character and colour: first movement
Pay attention to the important changes of colour and character in this work: in bar 83, for example, where you can think of these three beats as an up-beat into the very introverted and intimate second theme. From bar 96 the character becomes espressivo and deeper, with another change of colour from the final three notes of bar 99 – which again is very subtle and vulnerable – as in bar 103 and its echo in bar 104. Make sure you move on to the D string from the end of bar 106, for a different colour; and prepare for another colour change in bar 112, where there is an important dialogue between the viola and the piano. I don’t build up at all in this passage, so that I can play subito forte, with a real scream, from bar 116. Bars 120–121 should be very rhythmical.
From bar 206, one has to find a very warm, generous colour, with a kind of light. You can really take time in bar 210. Don’t slow down – everything has to be very organic – but just stretch it a little bit, to bring yourself into the sostenuto at bar 214. This should be quite free, and not a subito sostenuto. This is a late work, and it should not be played with the character of a young, hungry person, but of an old man enjoying a cigar and a beautiful old whisky, philosophising about the life that he has had. The viola is the perfect instrument to give you this heavier feel.
Colouring the second movement
This is one of my favourite slow movements. It is subtle and vulnerable, and is very unusual for Brahms, because the piano part is very thin and delicate. There are only two fortes in the whole movement, in bars 19 and 67. At the opening I have written poco forte, but don’t take this too literally – just play up enough to introduce the 12-bar theme, which comes back many times. I play more sotto voce from bar 11, and I move on to the D string at the end of bar 12 to give a contrast in colour to the A-string opening. The repeated theme from bar 13 is like an echo of what’s come before it.
Bar 31 is like an ostinato and I try not to do anything with the music here: it is as though time has frozen. I stand back and play even more softly, almost without vibrato, until the music blossoms for the beautiful theme from the second half of bar 35. Here you can use a lot of bow and air on the long note. In contrast, bars 41–43 should sound very dry and marcato, with emphasis on the bass.
I’m a great fan of paying attention to the ‘hidden’, seemingly unimportant (but actually extremely important) notes that people tend to forget: for example, remember to vibrate on the semiquaver (s) in bar 38, and on the A flats in bars 64–65. Think of vibrating throughout the movement, not to give a hysterical vibrato on each individual note, but to put you in a singing state of mind.
All through the movement, the demisemiquavers ( ) should feel ‘spoken’. For those in bar 62, lift the upper bow arm to create what I call the ‘Bashmet sound’: Yuri Bashmet uses this technique with a lot of bow speed to carry his arm through the air with an incredible, airy, beautiful and almost flautando sound colour. I build up the speed a little through this passage, using more and more bow – just like the accelerating car in the first movement.
Interview by Pauline Harding