Jenna Sherry | Dániel Lőwenberg Sonatas for Violin and Piano – Brahms: Op.120 Nos.1&2, Dohnányi: Op.21

BMCCD295 2020

This recording by Jenna Sherry and Dániel Lőwenberg features the still little-known (and rarely played) violin versions of Brahms’ two Op. 120 Sonatas alongside a similarly rare recording of Ernő Dohnányi’s mercurial Op. 21 Violin Sonata.


Jenna Sherry – violin
Dániel Lőwenberg – piano (1898 Steinway & Sons grand model B)

About the album

Recorded at BMC Studio, Budapest on 30-31 January, 2018 (8-10) and 3-5 January, 2020 (1-7)
Recording producer: Péter Aczél
Sound engineer: Viktor Szabó

Artwork: László Huszár / Greenroom

Produced by László Gőz
Label manager: Tamás Bognár

Supported by the National Cultural Fund of Hungary

3500 HUF 11 EUR

Johannes Brahms: Sonata in F minor, Op. 120 No. 1 (1895)

01 I. Allegro appassionato 7:43
02 II. Andante un poco Adagio 4:30
03 III. Allegretto grazioso 4:24

Johannes Brahms: Sonata in E flat major, Op. 120 No. 2 (1895)

05 I. Allegro amabile 7:57
06 II. Allegro appassionato 5:13

Ernő Dohnányi: Sonata in C sharp minor, Op. 21 (1912)

07 I. Allegro appassionato 7:03
08 II. Allegro ma con tenerezza 4:40
09 III. Vivace assai – Tempo del primo pezzo 7:23
Total time 60:24

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“Nobody can play the clarinet better than Mr Mühlfeld here” wrote Johannes Brahms (1833–1897) in March 1891 to Clara Schumann, after hearing Richard Mühlfeld’s performance of Weber’s F minor Clarinet Concerto in Meiningen. Mühlfeld’s playing so inspired the elderly composer that he soon composed two chamber works for him: the Op. 114 Trio for piano, clarinet, and cello, and the Op. 115 Clarinet Quintet. At the beginning of May 1894 during a trip to Vienna, Mühlfeld visited Brahms and they played music together. Although the composer had announced he would retire, this event obviously rekindled his creative impetus, because in that same month he began to work on the two Op. 120 clarinet sonatas, which he completed that summer. Following several private performances, the public premiere of the sonatas was on 8 and 11 January 1895 in Vienna, performed by Mühlfeld and the composer.

In Brahms’s time a clarinet sonata constituted something of a curiosity, whereas there was a century-long tradition of duo sonatas for string instruments and piano. Because of this, from the outset Brahms had been planning to transcribe the clarinet part of both sonatas for viola; the viola parts were definitely finished by January 1895. Soon he had the idea of making versions for violin too. On 17 February 1895 Brahms informed Franz Simrock, his publisher in Berlin, that after the versions for clarinet and viola, he wished to publish the two sonatas in a violin version as well. The Op. 120 sonatas for violin and piano were first played at a private gathering by Marie Soldat-Roeger and the composer. The printed versions of the clarinet and viola versions appeared in June that year, and the violin version in the following month.

As regards the later life of the Op. 120, it is odd that although the two sonatas constitute an important part of the repertoire for clarinettists and violists to this day, violinists pay far less attention to them than to Brahms’s three earlier sonatas for violin and piano (Op. 78, 100, and 108). Even today, the Op. 120 violin sonatas are rarely programmed, and there are hardly any recordings of them. Yet the special atmosphere and inner richness of these works of inspired beauty comes across not only on the clarinet or the viola, but also on the violin, as this recording aptly demonstrates. True, bringing these qualities to the fore on the violin is not exactly easy. In this version Brahms tried to make the part slightly more violinistic, for instance by introducing double stops, indeed he took the reworking so seriously that in places he even altered the piano part, but two things are undeniable: one is that the passages written expressly with clarinet technique in mind are awkward on the violin, and difficult to play. The other is that the part dwells for extended periods in the low register, where the sound of the violin is at its least bright. All this may have some bearing on these works not having become part of the canon as sonatas for violin and piano.

Both works are characterized by an intimate, nostalgic tone. Although according to the tempo indication the first movement of the F minor sonata and the second of the E flat major sonata are in a “passionate” Allegro, this passion is no current that sweeps us away, nor a scorching inferno, but rather embers that glow intermittently. Characteristically, both minor movements fade out in pianissimo. The open octaves of the beginning of the F minor sonata, the frequent open fifths as it continues, and the emphatic use of the low register of the piano, conjure up images of the passing of things, valedictory moods and mourning. The major mode that shines through at the slow conclusion of the opening movement seems to sound from a life after death. The Allegretto grazioso, the third movement of the F minor sonata, in the place traditionally occupied by the minuet, recalls the character of a Schubertian Ländler, but only as a memory, as if from afar, as hinted at by the frequent performance indications of dolce, molto dolce, dolcissimo and teneramente. The previous movement is a dreamy Andante, and shows Brahms in the style of his late intermezzos. The only untrammeled, bright movement of the Op. 120 (and the only “showy” one in terms of instrumental technique) is the F major finale of the F minor sonata. In contrast to this, the outer movements of the three-movement E-flat major sonata show an intimate, meditative mood.

For the young Ernő Dohnányi (1877–1960), the late style of Brahms was his musical mother tongue. When he was 18 in 1895, his Op. 1 Piano Quintet, premiered at a student concert in the Budapest Music Academy (and still often played today) won Brahms’s approval, to the extent that at his recommendation it was performed that same year in the Tonkünstlerverein in Vienna. The Op. 21 sonata for violin and piano in C sharp minor is no longer the work of a budding composer: it was written in 1912, at the same time as Dohnányi was working as a piano teacher in the Hochschule für Musik in Berlin.

Though the tone, the melodic inflections and the musical character are undeniably Brahmsian, in terms of harmony and form the sonata strikes out on a path of its own. Its harmonic world is characterized by continuous modulations, often daring ones, which result in a constant uncertainty of key, a kind of floating tonality. The form of the work is particularly exciting: the three movements, played without a break, can be seen as a single vast sonata form (“cyclic sonata form”), the integral unity of which is created by the thematic and motivic relationships between the movements and their sections. The main theme heard on the violin at the beginning of the work develops from a three-note sighing motif (D sharp-E-C sharp), and almost all the musical material in the sonata can be derived from this motif. In this way, in a unique and masterly structure, the principal of Brahmsian “developing variation” meets the principal of cyclic sonata form, which can be traced back to Liszt’s B minor sonata.

As a result of the cyclic sonata form, each formal section performs several functions at once, or rather its role in the traditional, multi-movement cycle is altered or overshadowed by its function in the cyclic sonata form. Thus, when around the mid-point of the first movement, the main theme is heard in the home key, we cannot tell whether we are hearing a repetition of the exposition, the beginning of the development, or perhaps the recapitulation. After this there is no return of the main theme in the movement, but the subsidiary theme returns in regular fashion at the end of the movement, in C sharp major. In this manner Dohnányi rounds off the opening movement while also arousing in the listener a sense of something missing, something that will be fulfilled only a good ten minutes later in the reprise of the cyclic sonata form, i.e. the closing section (Tempo del primo pezzo) of the third movement. The opening movement is followed by a variation movement in moderate tempo and a sweeping scherzo, though the cyclic sonata form alters the traditional structure of both movements: in the fourth variation of the second movement the “agitato” theme of the first movement appears, while before the reprise of the scherzo there is a development-like passage, and the reprise itself is played over a dominant pedal, preparing the way for the reprise of the cyclic sonata form. Yet the function of the reprise itself is not traditional: in the return to the main theme (and the home key) there is hardly any of the joy or at least relief of having “arrived”. The muted violin and the pianissimo dynamic create a sense of a retrospection, of longing for the past. The work fades out in a triple pianissimo.

Brahms’s two late sonatas and Dohnányi’s work, in their different ways, both bid farewell to the rich legacy of musical late Romanticism at the turn of the 20th century, still in “blissful peacetime”.

Márton Kerékfy
Translated by Richard Robinson  

Violinist Jenna Sherry is from New Orleans, and her roots in this bohemian city inspire her approach to music-making. She now lives in London. A versatile chamber musician who feels at home in both old and contemporary music, she performs in celebrated halls and festivals around the world. She is a member of the Freiburg-based Ensemble Experimental and artistic director and founder of the “rule- bending” Birdfoot Festival, an international chamber music festival. She earned her Master’s Degree in 2008 from the Guildhall School of Music & Drama under the direction of David Takeno. Other formative musical influences include Ferenc Rados, Mark Kaplan, and Valerie Poullette. Since 2017 she has been a teacher at the Royal Conservatory in The Hague School for Young Talent.

Pianist Dániel Lőwenberg was born in Budapest, and as a soloist and chamber musician he has performed in many countries around the world. He is often invited to international festivals, including the Budapest Spring Festival (Hungary), Christchurch Arts Festival (New Zealand), and IMS Prussia Cove – Open Chamber Music (UK). His repertoire encompasses all periods of piano and chamber music literature. He earned his Master’s Degree under Imre Rohmann at the Mozarteum in Salzburg. He currently teaches chamber music at the Bartók Béla Conservatory in Budapest. In 2012 he published a biography of the Hungarian violinist and conductor Sándor Végh, which to this day is the only monograph on this world- famous musician.

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