The three violin sonatas of Johannes Brahms make a wonderful recital package, having been presented over the years by such diverse violin-piano duos as Adolf Busch and Rudolf Serkin, Zino Francescatti and Robert Casadesus, and Josef Suk and Julius Katchen.
All written between 1879 and 1888 in the full flood of Brahms' maturity, these sonatas traverse a landscape stretching from the springlike innocence of No. 1 in G Major, Op. 78 through the shorter, more reflective but equally lyrical No. 2 in A Major, Op. 100 to arrive for the finale at the dark and dramatic No. 3 in D minor, Op 108. Its brief but grippingly poignant Adagio could be put forward as the crown of the three sonatas.
For some reason I can't figure out, Jaime Laredo and Leon Fleisher chose to open the recital with Sonata No. 2, rather than playing the sonatas in chronological order. This deprived the recital of the better-defined center it would have had with the lyrically introspective No. 2 in the middle. That's a minor cavil, however, because great music such as this is enjoyable in any order.
The Laredo-Fleisher performance of No. 2 proved to be exceptionally introspective, with Fleisher establishing a very leisurely tempo and expansive sonority at the outset. When Laredo joined in, the performance began to seem almost analytical, to the point that the musical line did not seem fully sustained at times.
Although the second movement also began at a slow, very inward-looking tempo, it gradually assumed more animation, and the movement's concluding "vivace" section was fully up to tempo. This seemed to clear the air, and the final movement gave the sonata a strong finish.
Even though in the Sonata No. 1 the artists seemed to be playing at an unusually low dynamic level at the start, the gorgeous opening theme still seems to soar harmonically, even when offered up in a state of repose. It's one of Brahms' most beautiful creations.
The solemn, sonorous piano introduction to the slow movement was followed by warm, intense violin lines to produce a performance that was tonally radiant and spiritually prayerful, one of the recital's finest moments. The concluding "Allegro molto moderato" was offered in a straightforward manner, with a fine pianissimo ending.
It may have been that the acoustics of the vaulted church sanctuary favored the piano over the violin, but there were several times when it almost seemed that Laredo was reticent to let his violin speak out.
Most of my reservations about the Laredo-Fleisher performance vanished in the concluding Sonata No. 3, where the dramatic contrasts in the opening movement's thematic material stood out boldly. The gorgeous theme of the above-mentioned Adagio was firmly and reverently intoned, with the violin and piano in immaculate balance.
The pointed profile of the scherzo movement's theme came through with clarity and incisiveness, and the Finale was fiery and robust, in the best Brahmsian manner.
Violinist Jaime Laredo and pianist Leon Fleisher
Tuesday night in Holy Trinity Lutheran Church. Part of Ramsi P. Tick Memorial Concert Series.