New Adventures with Old Music -- Brahms Sonatas

August 3, 2016, 11:40 AM · There's nothing like a good adventure, to turn two strangers into the best of friends.

For example, playing all three Brahms Sonatas for Violin and Piano. Admittedly, this kind of adventure does not involve climbing mountains, leaping from planes, or flying to new countries. And yet, it certainly brings new vistas, with the violin and piano fully engaged and holding hands the whole way.

Something about venturing through all three Brahms violin sonatas cemented my friendship with Gina Kruger, a pianist who now lives a half a world away from me in London. We met in Omaha, Neb., each newly married and unemployed. Both recent graduates from music school, we were dying to play music.

So we did. Even better, we simply played what we both wanted to play, and our tastes were pretty agreeable on that measure: Franck, Mozart, Ravel, Beethoven, and of course, Brahms. I'd never worked with a pianist in the way we worked together. In school, I simply hired a pianist for my recitals and maybe had one rehearsal beforehand. But this was different; we rehearsed as a chamber group would, over a long period of time and with a lot of back-and-forth. It was a true collaboration. Eventually we both did get busy with jobs and life, but we kept playing together, doing recitals and generally just hanging out over the four years we both lived in Nebraska.

Recently we played together again -- for the first time in 20 years, I realized. It was a sad occasion, her mother's funeral, in Los Vegas. When I left Los Angeles to drive to Las Vegas for the funeral, I brought music appropriate for the occasion. And.. well I had some new Barenreiter editions of the Brahms Sonatas... I brought those, too, knowing it was very unlikely we would have time to play them. But somehow it felt like I was bringing along one of our mutual friends.

As much as both of us have grown and changed, when we played together it felt like no time had passed at all. I was happy to be there for someone who felt like my sister, happy we could find some ease in music on a day that was otherwise anything but easy for her and her family.

I went back to Los Angeles, she went back to London. I unpacked, and laughed when I pulled out the Brahms. What was I thinking?

What indeed. I still want to play Brahms, that's what. Well, it would not be as fun without my dear pianist, but why not get started? Maybe she'll come back.

I looked for my old music, to see what choices I'd made about bowings, fingerings, phrasing, etc. One was simply missing, another was a very poor edition I'd bought in college, and another a tattered photo copy. I glanced at the fingerings, the bowings, my old way of playing this old music. Hmmmm. I tried playing it. My violin -- a much nicer one than I had 20 years ago -- refused to go on.

"Absolutely no," said my fiddle. "These are the most ridiculous fingerings and bowings I've ever seen, I have no idea what you were thinking. You have got to completely re-work every bit of this or I'm not going to play this with you."

Okay, that didn't actually happen. Yet that was the message I received!

Barenreiter Brahms 1I turned to my desk, to the brand-new Barenreiter edition, its creamy sheets of paper smelling like new ink. (I have a weakness for the smell of ink, having grown up in a family of newspaper writers.) I noticed that the Barenreiter includes one version that is edited by Clive Brown, and another that is blank, the urtext.

Time to start over with the Brahms, with my Gagliano violin as my guide, and with a little help from Clive Brown, as well as past voices of teachers and performances I've heard. Time to make the "Laurie edition" that fits my hands, my aesthetic at this point, my violin, etc. I started with the first sonata, Op. 78 in G major, just taking whatever time it takes to work through exactly the way I want to do it. I refer now and then to the Brown version, and to the old versions in my head, but I'm finding new solutions and enjoying the freedom in both the process and in the result.

This may seem obvious, but the goal is simply to sound good, to sound right. I feel like we get so caught up in trying to please teachers, follow rules, please audition committees, do that fingering on the page, follow proper historical precedent, get it "right" -- we forget our true aim, to speak through music, with a beautiful sound. Wherever did my voice go? Here is one exercise in getting it back. Now I just need a pianist!

* * *

Gorgeous - violinist Augustin Hadelich and pianist Orion Weiss play Brahms sonata no. 2 in A Major Op. 100:

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  • Replies

    August 4, 2016 at 02:45 AM · Thanks, Laurie! I had a similar experience with a flautist friend who also felt like a sister to me. She and I were pregnant together. She lives in Oxford now, but sometimes work brings her back here. Now that I've dropped the violin to give all my efforts to the viola, I wonder what we will play the next time she's here.

    August 4, 2016 at 10:46 AM · Laurie - they are gorgeous pieces. I can see why you could bond over them.

    August 4, 2016 at 03:20 PM · Don't forget Schumann sonatas. Like new and improved Brahms.

    August 4, 2016 at 08:20 PM · Hi, are they great or not? Listen to Zukerman and Barenboim! Gr Tom, Netherlands.

    August 5, 2016 at 12:21 AM · Tom, I almost put up the Zukerman and Barenboim, it's wonderful as well!

    August 5, 2016 at 06:34 PM · I am just learning the Brahms sonatas, and I'd like some advice. First, though, I must say that they are beautiful. Next, I've been listening to recordings of the violin with piano, and I realize that these are pieces for two equal voices, not for violin with piano accompaniment. How do you go about studying and playing the sonatas with violin alone, sort of as violin solo pieces, which they are not?

    August 5, 2016 at 06:57 PM · Laurie, I like your description of your violin telling you about what sounds right or wrong in your playing. Sometimes the voice of the violin is also the voice of the player.

    August 5, 2016 at 07:04 PM · Pauline, I think you listen a lot and also keep the score close at hand so you know who has the reins when and how the parts fit together. But if you can find a willing pianist to play/learn along with you, then all the better!

    August 6, 2016 at 05:49 PM · Laurie, you're right about how I am learning the piece. I can see that learning it would be much better with a pianist. Now to find one.

    The Mozart sonatas for violin and piano are supposed to treat the two instruments as equals, like the Brahms Sonatas. However, I've always enjoyed playing the violin parts of the Mozart sonatas alone. I think I had the wrong expectations for the Brahms. I have more respect and appreciation for the latter now.

    August 6, 2016 at 06:05 PM · I would love to play with you! Too bad Kentucky and California are so far from each other!

    August 9, 2016 at 07:45 PM · Favorite Brahms G major - if you can find the recording (EMI Classics, 2001) - Lisa Batiashvili and Milana Charnyavska. "Works for Violin and Piano, Elisabeth Batiashvili" Wonderful, intimate, unrushed, soulful, fierce performance from both, magical sound.

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