The Israeli violinist discusses why colour, shading and restraint are key in the first movement of this often-misinterpreted work. From the September 2017 issue

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To see the marked-up sheet music, in association with Henle Verlag, download The Strad’s September 2017 issue on desktop computer or via The Strad App, or buy the print edition

This sonata touches me in a way that even some other works by Brahms do not. There is something incredibly haunting and intimate about it that is difficult to put into words. It is one of Brahms’s most introverted works and emotionally that makes it ever more powerful: it is most painful to bleed on the inside, and that is the feeling here. He wrote it when his godson Felix Schumann (Robert and Clara’s son) passed away.

Felix was a talented violinist and poet, and from what we know the two were very close. At the time, Brahms was working on the sonata while on holiday in Switzerland with Joseph Joachim; when they heard the news they rushed back to Düsseldorf for the funeral. The second movement is a clear lament – almost a funeral march. In this sonata Brahms quotes Regenlied from his op.59 Lieder cycle – a setting of a poem by Klaus Groth (1819–1899), and this excerpt describes the music far better than I ever could:

Schauernd kühlte jeder Tropfen
Tief bis an des Herzens Klopfen,
Und der Schöpfung heilig Weben
Drang bis ins verborgne Leben

[Every trembling drop cooled
Deep down to the heart’s very beating,
And creation’s holy web
Pierced into my hidden life]

Although Regenlied is only formally quoted in the third movement of the op.78 Sonata, the same ‘dotted’ up-beat appears throughout the piece: it can be heard in the themes of the first and third movements, and in the middle section of the second movement. As in all his music, Brahms uses the same ‘key’ to open many doors, and in this case to evoke very different emotions.

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Colour and mood

This sonata is rather awkward – the notes do not always lie well on the instrument – but that shouldn’t prevent us from playing it! The greatest challenge, in the first movement in particular, is to give every musical sentence a structure. Brahms asks for incredible variety of colour and mood, in a way that is untypical of him. Already in the opening statement, marked mezza voce, we feel a direction towards a shade rather than black or white.

In bar 70 he writes ‘grazioso e teneramente’ (graciously and dearly). Here he is at his most sensual and sentimental; the gradation of emotion and colour is almost a prediction of 20th-century French Impressionism. To strike a balance between colour, mood and structure is not easy, but it is important throughout the piece.

Hemiolas and timing

Otto-Werner Mueller, the great conducting teacher at Juilliard, once said that Brahms was ‘born in a hemiola hospital’. Brahms played with the conflict between two and three his whole life, as can be heard in every one of his pieces. It is vital to recognise the hemiolas and use them as an expressive tool. The first hemiola phrase here is in bars 11–12; then across the bar-line in bars 12–13. In bars 44–45, bar 44 is clearly in two, as you would expect 6/4 to be; but then bar 45 is in three. This creates incredible tension and intensity.

Rhythmically, often the violin part opposes the piano part. The task is to feel the beats and the conflict with the piano, and not to give in! Brahms gives us clear patterns: for example, in bars 11–12 it is important not to subdivide the hemiola into twos:

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But to feel it as a unit of o-one tw-o thr-ee, one, two, three:

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…and to play wholeheartedly.

One common mistake is in the development, at the poco a poco più sostenuto of bars 105–107. Many people speed up in bar 106 – it’s tempting to run through the triplets of bar 110 with great gusto and direction, to make them more exciting and flashy. But Brahms has written poco ritenuto, and this is truly important: he is asking for a slower tempo.

If we allow ourselves time to broaden the pace, it gives us a bigger field to fill with tension and emotion. It also means that bar 154, where he writes poco a poco tempo primo just before the recapitulation, becomes an accelerando, not a ritenuto. When played this way it is far more introverted, yet incomparably more dramatic, creating a true feeling of ‘returning home’.

We also need to watch out for the con anima sections from bars 36 and 174, which need a balance of direction and emotion. From bar 36 we don’t face a hemiola for ten bars, which means there is less conflict in the music. I had a conversation about this with Isaac Stern the last time I played for him, two months before he passed away. He came back to this moment again and again – he was fascinated by how to balance the phrasing and the voices of the piano and the violin.

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Articulation and dynamics

Let’s look at the first bar, and then at bar 54 – see how differently the ‘dotted’ rhythm is articulated. That is important to recognise and follow. Both are on the string, but in bar 1 the line is more continuous, even through the rest; whereas the articulation in bar 54 implies that we should stop the bow.

Now look at bars 22–23. Many players crescendo here, too early. If we keep piano in bars 22–24, then grow louder only at the end of bar 24 into 25, the crescendo becomes an incredible, heartbreaking event. From bar 29, when the dynamic comes down again and the theme moves to the piano, Brahms writes in the violin part five bars with one articulation followed by different articulation in bars 34–35, with a hairpin into bar 35. This suggests phrasing by the bar in bars 29–33 and then a two-bar phrase in bars 34–35.

In the development section, in bar 117 the piano has a diminuendo. The violin line descends, so we could say that a diminuendo is implied there too; very often both players dip to piano, followed by a huge crescendo into bar 128. I think this is a mistake. Taking this section (beginning bars 105–7) slower, as I suggested earlier, gives us musical space to stay in forte until the più forte in bar 121, then to arrive in forte again at bar 128, without blasting out bar 125, where the pianist is playing in octaves, the violinist has broken chords and it’s tempting to create a perfect storm.

Instead, the high point should be the painful, unsettling, syncopated statement from bar 127, first in the piano and then the violin. Containing ourselves is one of the greatest challenges in life. It can be easy to pour out all our emotions and believe we are being musical, when sometimes the most power comes through restraint.

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Recordings

My favourite recordings of this piece are Szeryng with Rubinstein, Suk with Katchen, and Faust with Melnikov (see box). All three are stunningly different in approach, but what unites them is their incredible nobility, warmth and honesty of musicianship, and unity of purpose.

I love listening to recordings. I always have and I imagine I always will. Great recordings are inspiring; even not-so-great ones can be very informative. Of course, there is a danger of repeating the interpretations of others, in effect giving ‘interpretations of interpretations’ rather than interpreting the works themselves. I always encourage my young colleagues to form their ideas based on the greatest source of all: the score.

To see the marked-up sheet music, in association with Henle Verlag, download The Strad’s September 2017 issue on desktop computer or via The Strad App, or buy the print edition

In the YouTube link below, Henryk Szeryng plays with Artur Rubinstein in one of Gluzman’s favourite recordings of the work