The Lithuanian-born violinist and violist discusses technical preparation, character and colour in the first and second movements of this late work
This is an extract from the latest in The Strad’s marked-up sheet music series in association with Henle Verlag – featuring Julian Rachlin giving bowings, fingerings and ideas for interpretation in our March 2018 issue. Download now on desktop computer or via the The Strad App, or buy the print edition
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.