It’s rather rare for all three of these Brahms sonatas to comprise a recital programme, but there is no logical reason why this should be the case. Brahms might have approached the genre with some trepidation, feeling the ghost of Beethoven at his shoulder as he wrote, but the results speak for themselves as some of the finest duo sonatas ever written and show Brahms at the peak of his creative powers.
The first sonata, written in 1878-9, found Leonidas Kavakos and Yuja Wang getting straight to the heart of things with a perfect tempo and mood established by Wang as she revelled in the fullness of the piano part’s chords, but finding discretion too when called for. Kavakos responded in kind by producing violin playing of sensitive awareness that often intimated moments of serious intent rather than stating them outright, which served to add interest to the shifting strands of dialogue between the two instruments. The closing movement began almost with a sense of impish casualness from both players and any sense of inner yearning was lightly worn. The carefree quality Kavakos and Wang found perhaps said as much about their innate knowledge of each other’s’ approach which was reflected in the balance of projection and timbre they both achieved.
The second sonata, written in 1886, found Brahms returning to the violin sonata with a sense of confidence, and this was brought out by Kavakos and Wang in their playing. The initial amiability that characterises the opening movement quickly gave way to a greater passion being expressed, its weighty and thick textures in the piano part being free of the stolidity that can often serve to do disservice to Brahms’ writing. Kavakos found an elegance and majesty in Brahms’ long phrases too, and also a determination in the accentuation violin’s final phrases that brought a pleasing shape to the music. The middle movement’s tempo marking of Andante tranquillo was taken quite literally by Yuja Wang but was all the more effective for that, and her introduction of the second subject displayed an innate awareness of Brahmsian feeling rare in a musician of her age.
The lingering feeling that Kavakos might have on occasion found greater robustness and core within the tone of his playing continued into the third sonata at times. The opening movement was light-hearted for much of the time, as it should be, and some grandeur did establish itself, but the second movement Adagio failed to grip as it should because the initial tempo was not maintained in the repeat. A much needed sense of light and shade was brought to the third movement as Yuja Wang explored the nuances of Brahms’ writing, whilst Leonidas Kavakos found variety in the tone of his violin. The sonata ended with the greatest of contrasts to the preceding material, its fourth movement appearing to be more Furioso than Presto agitato in its initial statements. That said, its sense of brooding tensions and the gathering of thematic material towards a conclusion replete with Brahmsian richness was never less than thrilling.
Three rather diverse encores followed, the first being a gripping and dynamically paced performance of Brahms’s Scherzo, extracted from the F.A.E. sonata written in partnership with Albert Dietrich and Robert Schumann for Joseph Joachim. The second was a keenly felt reading of the slow movement from Schumann’s A minor sonata, and the third was Dushkin’s arrangement of the Russian Dance from Stravinsky’s Petrushka, played with the spirit and verve which exemplify this duo at their best.
Further details of Barbican concerts can be found at barbican.org.uk.