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Sonata in E-Flat, Op. 120, for viola and piano

September 27, 2009 – Lawrence Dutton, viola; Ken Noda, piano

The warm, middle-range sonorities of the viola and the clarinet cast the two instruments as natural musical allies. Both instruments are, by nature, warm and consoling. The viola was the favored chamber instrument of Mozart, Beethoven, and Schubert, and the clarinet inspired late masterworks by composers as diverse as Mozart, Schubert, Schumann, Brahms, and Bartók. There is a spiritual link between the two instruments, which Schumann exploited in Fairy Tales (heard earlier on this program). Brahms’ Sonata in E-Flat was originally composed for the clarinet, but he soon decided to arrange it for the viola, feeling that the work’s glowing, reflective character would be equally well-served by the rich-toned string instrument.

In 1890 Brahms was entering his late 50s and felt that his composing days were coming to an end. Ever self-critical, he intended to complete a few unfinished works and burn the rest. Fortunately, he attended a performance around that time by the distinguished German clarinetist Richard Mühlfeld and was inspired to compose a series of crowning works to showcase his artistry. (Mozart was similarly inspired by the playing of the legendary Anton Stadler, to whom he dedicated a set of late masterpieces, including his great clarinet concerto, composed only weeks before his death.) Brahms’ E-flat-major sonata, heard here on the viola, is the final piece in the set of compositions that he wrote for Mühlfeld and his last piece of chamber music.

Brahms found his unique compositional voice early in his career and maintained it until the end. Unlike Schumann, who favored poetic titles for his pieces, Brahms eschewed programmatic references, preferring to write “pure” music in traditional forms. In contrast to revolutionaries such as Wagner and Lizst, Brahms was, at heart, a Romantic Classicist, keenly aware of his place in the lineage of music history. As he grew older, his music became texturally simpler and more graceful, reflective, and relaxed. “Autumnal” is the term invariably applied to his late works, and that adjective perfectly describes the atmosphere of the sonata in E-flat major for viola or clarinet.

The first movement is bathed in a warm, sustained lyricism. The atmosphere is pastoral, tranquil, and suffused with a golden inner glow. Brahms’ musical voice is wise and consoling throughout this exceptionally beautiful movement.

The passionate second movement, in the form of a vigorous Scherzo, begins with a fiery viola solo. A reassuring, chorale-like middle section starts with the piano alone in music of sustained nobility and confidence. The trio is followed by a short transition, heralding a return to the urgency and passion of the first section.

The final movement starts with a flowing, folk-like theme, which is followed by six variations. Brahms was always fascinated by the element of rhythm, and he uses complicated syncopated patterns as important structural components in several of the variations. In the first one, for instance, the piano and viola play on opposite sides of each pulse, alternating in playing on and off the beat. The second variation has a cradle-like motion; the simple melody is accompanied by an arpeggiated pattern that teeters back and forth across the octaves. Variation 3 is a calm, filigreed conversation between the two instruments, and the fourth variation extends the tranquil atmosphere in a gentle but rhythmically off-balance dialogue that often masks the downbeats. Variation 5 insistently reestablishes the rhythmic equilibrium, diving headlong into a vigorous, E-flat-minor allegro. The sixth and final variation begins with a serenely flowing stream of melody that gradually gains in momentum, culminating in a strong, triumphant conclusion.

By Michael Parloff

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