Kremer's Brahms Violin Sonata No. 1

Edited: October 15, 2017, 10:59 PM · In preparing for my upcoming performance of this piece, I'm surveying some great recordings and videos. There are so many different interpretations, but this performance given by Gidon Kremer is unique and I think it worth some discussion. What do you think? Thoughtful? Too slow?

Replies (29)

October 15, 2017, 4:52 PM · Are you related to Lyndon?
October 16, 2017, 1:43 AM · Thoughtful certainly (as always with Kremer) but it's all wrong for me. What's "vivace" about the first movement? I get no sense at all of a prevailing tempo in any of the movements. I like the fact that he doesn't play it all with a uniform fat tone, but when they come so frequently the "ethereal" moments lose their magic. Brahms needs more backbone
Edited: October 16, 2017, 3:23 AM · Intimate. Tender. And I like to savour every miraculous note in Brahms' piano parts in this way.
October 16, 2017, 4:42 AM · Kremer too slow? This I gotta hear. :)
October 16, 2017, 9:05 AM · Sounds like he's on Quaaludes at 6:00. I will never get Kremer.
October 16, 2017, 9:08 AM · Indeed the Kremer interpretation is quite special at first hearing, but then when you put the sheet music next to it, you notice that he is actually following Brahms's instructions quite closely. Brahms put lots of pianissimo's. Even the tempo is "vivace ma non troppo" measured in 6/4 which I think corresponds to what he is actually taking as tempo.
Edited: October 16, 2017, 9:57 AM · Jean - surely "vivace ma non troppo" indicates "lively (but don't go mad)". The overall impression I come away with is anything but lively. 6/4 of course indicates 2-in-a-bar compound time but can't be taken as an indication of tempo. In fact the tempo they start with isn't all that slow; I just wish they'd stuck with it.
Edited: October 18, 2017, 10:45 PM · I am with Steve. The freedom in tempo change is too much for my taste. It started a bit under temp and then just gets slower and slower to the point of being weird to my ears. The 2nd movement (Adagio)too is more like Largo.

I do feel the intimate and tenderness Adrian said, but at places the energy gets lost. Kremmer seems letting the piano take his time, consequently one gets the feeling as though the piano is dragging the tempo.

October 17, 2017, 1:07 AM · It's extraordinary how interpretations and opinions on interpretations can differ. Kremer and Afanasssiev are both great musicians so who are we to tell them they're wrong? Only one man has the right to do that and he's long gone. With any performance there will be "likers" and "dislikers" and no matter how strong their rational case for objection may be the latter are the losers (unless you really like disliking things, which I guess some people do).

I remember reading a review of a stage play through which the reviewer had sat stony-faced while the rest of the audience were convulsed in mirth. He was contemptuous of them not being able to see that the play "simply wasn't funny".

October 17, 2017, 2:27 AM · I think it's very beautiful and thoughtful. I don't *think* I would approach it in the same way - I'd go rather faster.

(By contrast I find Anne-Sophie Mutter's approach to the Spring sonata, which virtually comes to a dead stop at the end of the development section, more inappropriate...)

October 17, 2017, 4:52 AM · I also have big issues with A S-M's Beethoven sonatas! She likes to "do" something with almost every bar which I reckon Beethoven doesn't require. In Brahms, though, I do think careful attention to phrasing pays dividends.
October 17, 2017, 12:04 PM · "Kremer and Afanasssiev are both great musicians so who are we to tell them they're wrong?"

Er, I don't think the purpose of discussion is to tell anyone the right or wrong way of playing. However, it is part of the life an artist to be subject to reviews and criticism, fair ones or not. As an amateur violinist, I too will face criticism when I perform. So I want to hear what people's view about approaches taken by the greats and such views will have certain impact on my own choices. This is not to say that I will ask reviewers to tell me what to do and how to do it. There is a huge difference between listening to different views and following their advice.

October 17, 2017, 1:15 PM · Yixi - My point is that many critics (professional and amateur) are only too eager to tell artists they are wrong and are reluctant to accept there might be a different point of view than their own. Would it be a good idea if they invited the artists to respond to their comments and hopefully create a discussion rather than a confrontation? I think that would require a certain humility on the part of the artist which is also sadly a rather rare commodity.
October 17, 2017, 1:33 PM · I don't think the artists needs to respond to criticism at all. Criticism is ultimately more about the critics than those who have been criticized. In other words, an artist put out fruit of their labour, that job is done.The fruit starts the life if its own and those who taste it, will have all sorts of experiences and ideas. That's theirs to have.
Edited: October 17, 2017, 11:35 PM · THANK YOU! I enjoyed this. A lot. Listened to them do all three Brahms sonatas (iTunes).
These Kremer/Afanasssiev recordings just shout, "BRAHMS!" So symphonic. Felt I was listening to three violin concertos. Deeply powerful - like Furtwangler was conducting them!
Yes, their approach is unique, refreshing - individualistic - and I love what they have to say.
It reminds me of Kogan's recording of the Franck sonata with orchestra instead of piano. Franck's piano writing was symphonic (organ-like) also - so that arrangement too really worked (unlike the same forces arrayed for Schubert's Fantasy in C where orchestral instead of piano just muddied the accompaniment).
Edited: October 18, 2017, 4:26 AM · I just checked out the timings of 22 other recordings of the sonata in the Naxos Music Library (there are plenty more). Twenty of them come in between 26 and 29 minutes (recall Kremer/Afanassiev take more than 36). The last two, both timed around 24 minutes, include the duo Oleg Kagan and Sviatoslav Richter. Yes, they do play all the notes, with a sense of urgency that I find more involving than their compatriots and which doesn't in my view violate Brahms's tempo indications. There's also a live performance on youtube. Try it!

PS I recall at about this time (1985) Richter was notorious for his slow tempi!

Edited: October 19, 2017, 3:05 AM · I like the opening but may be a bit too ponderous overall for me too, especially the development, which is kinda weird, but maybe saved by the transition to the recap. But I agree some of the recap is too halting, and I like more drive in the coda. Big finish!

Vivace is not a tempo indication.

I remember a quotation of Brahms, something like machines and my blood don't mix well together, or something(?)

Brahms was the opposite of Beethoven when it came to dictating tempos I think. I'm not sure if he ever indicated MM of his own volition, or whether they were taken from actual performances and published. I think there is some evidence he chose quicker tempos than some recent performers, and he didn't vary as much. I think Wagner found him to be a bit square.

To me the opening theme should feel a bit tentative, tender. It builds to the second part which is more vivace and hopeful yet contained, as if it's more of a yearning than a fulfillment of anything. And there's some anger and frustration, defeat thrown in there for good measure. I like a bit more Sturm and Drang in the development.

Second movement feels too fragmented in the piano, bit like stuttering in the opening. Lovely violin entrance though, haunted and fragile. Second theme is a bit lumbering. It's a brave tempo though, tough to pull off. I like the violin, not so much the piano, throughout the second movement, though some of the soft stuff is lovely, great soft touch. Nice full blooded restatement of the first theme by Kremer. Hard to do so slowly. I like the halting feeling near the end. Kinda profound the way they finish. The variety in the recurring themes is pretty amazing. A true Adagio, though I'm not sure it's a Brahmsian Adagio.

Third feels molto molto moderato, not much Allegro in there. Makes it feel a bit choppy. I like a general faster feel with slower restatements of themes from previous movements for contrast. I like the way they restate things with such variety, just wish the main theme was faster, more sweeping.

Overall I do like the expansive feel, that nothing is rushed or glossed over. I find there are a lot of magical moments, but maybe not held together enough. But I may grow to like it more and more, especially the older I get.

Thanks for sharing Yixi!

Edited: October 18, 2017, 9:31 PM · Brahms, Clara, and Op. 78.

Regenlied (Rain Song) Op. 59 No. 3

Pour, rain, pour down,
Awaken again in me those dreams
That I dreamt in childhood,
When the wetness foamed in the sand!

When the dull summer sultriness
Struggled casually against the fresh coolness,
And the pale leaves dripped with dew,
And the crops were dyed a deeper blue.

What bliss to stand in the downpour
With naked feet,
To reach into the grass
And touch the foam with one's hands!

Or upon hot cheeks,
To catch the cold drops;
And with the newly awakened fragrances
To air one's childish breast!

Like the flowers' chalices, which trickle there,
The soul breathes openly,
Like the flowers, drunk with fragrance,
Drowning in the dew of the Heavens.

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

Pour, rain, pour down,
Awaken the old songs,
That we used to sing in the doorway
When the raindrops pattered outside!

I would like to listen to it again,
That sweet, moist rushing,
My soul gently bedewed
With holy, childlike awe.

Nachklang (Tears) Op. 59 No. 4

Drops of rain on wearied flowers
lay them low and pale to view,
tears that full in hours of sorrow
spoil the cheek of rosy hue,
When the rainbow hues of morning
turn to golden glow of day;
golden hours of love and laughter
tell of sorrow far away,
tell of sorrow far away.

Edited: October 19, 2017, 8:23 AM · Jeewon, thank you thank you, for such a beautiful and helpful review! I didn't know Brahms' tempo indication is less strict, and that's really good to know. Thanks for the Regenlied, which I listen often since I started to learn this piece. I love this piece so much! There are so much packed in it and so much to work on.

I had my second performance of the first movement last Monday at the Victoria conservatory. My husband was there and his feedback was that my opening was very beautiful and tender with good colors("The sound couldn't be better" was his actual words). But then I got distracted by a wrong page on the music stand, and then my shoulder rest kept slipping off. The whole thing somewhat fell apart. LOL.

Lesson learned: make sure the music is in the right order on the music stand, and don't change shoulder rest the day before the performance.

October 19, 2017, 4:17 AM · Hah, been there, done that! I usually start "discovering" novel solutions to problems I never had the closer I get to the performance. :-)

But getting that opening right is so tricky. Congrats on that!

Edited: October 19, 2017, 8:26 AM · The one thing I've never found satisfying about Kremer's playing is his tone. There's just something about his vibrato that doesn't hit me, and though I like his Brahms tempos (a bit slow, though), I just wasn't drawn into his tone in the way I have been by many others, such as the younger Isaac Stern, or Grumiaux or Francescatti, or Mutter or Rosand.

I have his Bach solo sonatas and find them too aggressive, with crazy tempi. No wonder everyone else needs 3 discs to record the set and he only needed 2...

October 19, 2017, 9:57 AM · I've been listening to another controversial player in this piece. Anne-Sophie Mutter's tempi are conventional enough but for the opening and elsewhere she adopts a faint, breathlessly throbbing tone that to me sounds highly contrived. Is it properly respectful of a performer (who after all isn't the creative artist here) to draw attention to herself in this way?
Edited: October 19, 2017, 11:54 AM · "Is it properly respectful of a performer (who after all isn't the creative artist here) to draw attention to herself in this way?"

I think this is an overstatement about ASM, or any master of her caliber. She IS a creative artist!

Every master plays with their personal touch as they see fit, like it or not. It was Nate Cole said that a music score is not recipe but a menu -- each violinist has to come up with their "dish" written on the "menu" based on their skills and talent. Even McDonald food tasted different to me in China, no matter how much the cook must follow the "standard". As a student, we have to follow the "standard" interpretations to begin with since it's part of tradition we learn when we learn violin. Even so, I would think playing with some personality is a very desirable thing even at an early stage.

Edited: October 19, 2017, 12:04 PM · I like ASM's Brahms, but sometimes in some of her recordings, I feel like she goes a little off the rails in some of her interpretations. I don't know if she is really thinking "look at me!", or if that is just her understanding of the music. I mean, I think a lot of Kremer's interpretive choices are absurd (mostly in rhythmic terms, although I find his tone kind of acerbic), and I wonder at how he comes to his interpretations - I still hesitate to say he is trying to make the music about himself (I imagine he is looking for new possibilities). But I like ASM's extremes, which when good reflect a really passionate performance, and when unchecked, seem a little hysterical, and more importantly for me, I find her rhythms to be pretty organic and her tone to largely be beautiful.

Maybe it's like Goldilocks, where Szeryng's Brahms is like perfect porridge, with everything measured beautifully and just at the right temperature, and ASM's is a little hot here and a little cold here and makes for interesting eating, and then Kremer's is actually not porridge at all, but turns out to be a bowl full of hyper-intelligent spiders.

I would also check out Christian Ferras for a very beautiful and very emotional interpretation that never crosses the line into excess and is completely free of spiders. I can hear a continuation of style from him to ASM.

October 19, 2017, 12:21 PM · Sorry Yixi, I'd say a classical violinist is not a creative artist but an interpretative artist whose first responsibility should be to the composer. I fully accept that she is entitled to bring something of her personality to her playing (and I'd not think much of her if she didn't), but how much is acceptable? It disturbs me when listening I suddenly feel "that wasn't Brahms, that was x!".

I applaud most of Christian's comments, although I find Kremer's interpretive choices mostly stimulating rather than narcissistic which unfortunately is how I find some of Mutter's here. I think we'd all agree that no performer is justified in changing the notes (although that was more acceptable in an earlier age) but how far can Kremer justifiably stretch the commonly held notion of "vivace"? Note the question-marks - I'm inquiring, not dictating.

Edited: October 19, 2017, 12:57 PM · Steve, I don't know how many serious violinists would happily limit themselves to a mere interpretative artist. But maybe I am confused. Can you explain to us a bit more about what does it mean for an artist to be an interpretative or a creative one? That is, what are the necessary conditions an artist must meet in order to be called creative artist? What is the boundary that crossing which one is no longer an interpretive artist? When such line has been crossed, in your opinion, if and when is it a genuine attempt to be original or is it always boils down to "draw attention to herself"? Inquiry mind wants to know. :-)
October 19, 2017, 1:32 PM · This is going to sound pretty pompous, but I appreciate your interest in my cod philosophy!

I guess if you accept that a distinction can or should be made between "creative" and "interpretative" (just words of course, remembering Alice and Humpty Dumpty!), I'd say that a creative artist is one who leaves a beautiful artifact behind in some kind of concrete form. Now we have recordings you might say the violinist does leave something behind, although it's a collaborative rather than an individual creation and the player is undoubtedly the junior partner. Where the boundary between constructive interpretation and destructive distortion is considered to lie is entirely a matter of changing fashion and personal taste. Does that make any sense at all?

October 19, 2017, 1:53 PM · It makes sense and I can see where you come from, Steve. I think you'd agree that it's bit of a slippery slope... btw, what is cod philosophy?
Edited: October 20, 2017, 12:42 AM · I meant to imply "homespun". I wondered if you'd ask what sort of artist I'd call a jazz violinist, and my ready answer was a "performance artist" which is another convenient and simplistic label.

"Cod philosophy, sometimes cod-philosophy, is a term for the personal philosophy of the masses, or the philosophical musings of one who has not formally studied philosophy. The word "cod" comes from first syllable of "codswallop", and so the term carries with it a negative connotation." Just right!

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