By Jonathan Blumhofer
One might risk hyperbole by saying so, but in this instance such recklessness is worth it: this album sounds like Brahms as he ought to be played and sung.
Have Johannes Brahms’s two viola sonatas ever been better served than they are in this new release from violist Antoine Tamestit and pianist Cédric Tiberghien? Maybe – Pinchas Zukerman’s accounts with, respectively, Marc Neikrug and Daniel Barenboim are awfully good. But this one’s got a program that’s hard-to-beat, pairing the sonatas with arrangements of two songs, and Matthias Goerne singing the op. 91 Zwei Gesänge.
Either way you cut it, then, this is some special Brahms.
The two sonatas are magisterially done: Tamestit and Tiberghien have clearly lived with this music for a long time and are very comfortable partners in it.
In the F-minor Sonata, the duo’s playing brims with warmth, color, and character. Tamestit’s silken tone is ideally balanced by Tiberghien’s warm-but-robust keyboard playing in the first movement. The second unfolds with effortless beauty, while the third’s play of light and shadow – from the exchanges between the elegant opening theme and the lusty, folksy second to the shimmering, mysterious Trio – is impeccably done. So, too, the spirited finale, which builds to a heroic, quintessentially Brahmsian peroration.
Their account of the E-flat-major Sonata is, likewise, flexible and warm – the opening of the first movement is utterly serene – but never slack: the rhythmical/metrical ambiguities of Brahms’s writing always project clearly. In Tiberghien’s hands, the keyboard writing speaks potently – even from the depths in the second movement – while Tamestit brings a flawless sense of character to his contributions.
Between the sonatas and the Gesänge come a pair of straightforward viola-piano settings of the op. 97 “Nachtigall” and op. 49 “Wiegenlied.” They’re sweetly done, especially the latter which, familiar though it may be, is a touchingly well-crafted song.
Goerne’s performance of the Gesänge – settings of Friedrich Rückert’s “Gestillte Sehnsucht” and Emanuel Geibel’s “Geistliches Wiegenlied” – are radiant. Typically, the piece is sung by an alto, but Goerne’s baritone fits the part to a “T”: one could hardly ask for a finer blend between singer, viola, and piano. Indeed, these are deeply felt, impressively clean readings. The texts come across with precision and clarity, but the larger performance also flows with a wonderful sense of purpose and shape.
Taken together with the song transcriptions, the Gesänge make for, programmatically, a conclusion to this album that’s both eminently logical and emotionally rewarding. One might risk hyperbole by saying so, but in this instance such recklessness is worth it: this album sounds like Brahms as he ought to be played and sung.
Jonathan Blumhofer is a composer and violist who has been active in the greater Boston area since 2004. His music has received numerous awards and been performed by various ensembles, including the American Composers Orchestra, Kiev Philharmonic, Camerata Chicago, Xanthos Ensemble, and Juventas New Music Group. Since receiving his doctorate from Boston University in 2010, Jon has taught at Clark University, Worcester Polytechnic Institute, and online for the University of Phoenix, in addition to writing music criticism for the Worcester Telegram & Gazette.