Christian Tetzlaff and Lars Vogt first recorded the three Brahms violin sonatas for EMI at the 2002 ‘Spannungen’ chamber music festival in Heimbach, Germany – spirited, occasionally restless performances that thrillingly capture the adrenalin rush of a live concert. This new studio account from Ondine preserves much of the ‘incisiveness, urgency and lightness of touch’ that Edward Greenfield justly praised in his review of that EMI disc, along with a breathtaking balance of poise and daring.
As in their live recording, Tetzlaff and Vogt favour flowing tempi, yet there’s an even greater sense of spontaneity and elasticity here than before – as the opening movement of Op 78 illustrates so beautifully. Although it’s marked Vivace ma non troppo, the players start out serenely; indeed, there’s little if any sense of vivace at all. Rather, one becomes aware of a growing ebullience. It’s signalled subtly at the beginning, as liquid streams of quavers gather into a gentle cascade, and reaches fruition only in the coda, which surges exultantly. In between, though, there’s an ebb and flow, a multiplicity of swirling currents that are somehow contained as an uninterrupted, unified body. Listen at around 2'58", where the instruments trade searching, syncopated melody and breathless accompaniment. Tetzlaff and Vogt imbue this intertwining dance with tender intimacy, and the resulting feeling of anticipation is exquisite.
In numerous passages throughout the programme, in fact, the players find ways to hold even the most expansive melodies or phrases taut (but not rigidly so) and thereby create enormous tension. There’s a section near the end of the Adagio of Op 78 (at 5'17") where – after some intricate figuration – the texture suddenly becomes drastically simplified to something like a distantly remembered, decelerated march. Vogt doesn’t stiffen up here and grip the dotted rhythms, as György Sebők does, say, in his classic Philips recording with Arthur Grumiaux, but instead seems to feel his way forwards, step by step. Sebők’s approach dissipates the emotional pressure, Vogt’s heightens it. And when, over this slow-moving procession, Tetzlaff entreats with a warm, beacon-like song, the effect is mesmeric.
Vogt can be almost reticent at times. His soft playing is very soft, although its presence is felt even at its quietest, perhaps because his touch is so varied and articulate. In the finale of Op 78, note how he distinguishes between the delicate pitter-patter of the right hand’s semiquavers and the left’s pizzicato-like interjections. Tetzlaff, for his part, employs a similarly diverse tonal arsenal. That glorious E flat major melody (at 3'50") is rendered with a silky legato, the double-stops amplifying the effect through texture, not volume, as if a single tone could not contain such emotion. And then at the movement’s end – first at 6'40", with its ravishing dolcissimo playing, and then at 7'29", where Tetzlaff reduces his sound to a confessional whisper – every phrase is intensely, memorably expressive.
On the live EMI recording, Tetzlaff’s sound was wiry and slightly edgy. Here, in Bremen’s Sendesaal, Ondine’s engineers do him full justice. He does not have a big, fat, voluptuous sound; it’s on the lean side, yet focused, gleaming, and capable of a completely un-saccharine sweetness. Notable, too, is his eloquent use of portamento – in the Allegro amabile of Op 100, where he moulds the first theme so elegantly (0'34"), and then, more impressively still, in the Adagio of Op 108, which is so heartfelt and noble.
Tetzlaff and Vogt take obvious pleasure in details without losing sight of the larger picture, whether it’s a phrase, a movement or an entire work. Indeed, they sharply delineate the individual character of each sonata. Opp 78 and 100 are both overwhelmingly sunny and lyrical, yet there’s greater vulnerability in the former and more confident ardour in the latter. Op 108, on the other hand, is anxiety-ridden and turbulent – and this interpretation aptly broods and frets, seethes and squalls. Even the eerie molto legato passage that introduces the first movement’s development (at 2'16") harbours a deep disquiet. The finale is explosive, rhythms bristling, dynamic contrasts starkly illuminated, and with an unrelenting dramatic thrust.
Similarly, in the propulsive, Hoffmann-esque Scherzo Brahms composed for the collaborative FAE Sonata (along with Schumann and Albert Dietrich), Tetzlaff and Vogt go for broke. Tetzlaff makes his violin spit and whine like a fiddler possessed, while Vogt stabs at the jagged syncopations with gusto. It’s an exhilarating encore to a superbly satisfying disc. No matter that the catalogue is crammed with recordings of these sonatas; this one will sit proudly on my shelf alongside Szeryng/Rubinstein, Mullova/Anderszewski and Dumay/Pires. (Andrew Farach-Colton / Gramophone)