January 5, 2015

The Brahms Sonatas: a review

The Brahms Sonatas: a review

‘Good Brahms is like char kway teow’, a friend once told me, ‘it is complex and has different layers, but too much of it when played the wrong way can make one sick of it’. Also, one of my benchmarks of good Brahms music would be whether or not the barlines can be heard. Loyal followers of Plink, Plonk, Plunk may have read this post, written during the time I was preparing for a small university-wide piano competition in Leeds (that I eventually won, yay) when my teacher Ian Buckle chided me for my audible barlines.


Brahms: The Violin Sonatas
Lee Shi Mei, violin, Lim Yan, piano
Esplanade Recital Studio
3 Jan 2014

Although a very popular programme on CDs and recitals (the last time the exact same programme was performed was just a year and a half ago, by Vladimir Choi and Albert Lin), it is still no mean feat to perform all three Brahms violin sonatas in a single concert.

Instead of chronologically, Lee and Lim opted to begin with the pastoral Second Sonata in A Major. From the opening bars one could already see that this partnership was going to be a successful one: Lee and Lim blended together well, fluidly passing the melody from piano to violin in the first movement. The tempo changes in the second movement were also seamless and not overly exaggerated.

In all, there was a wonderful naturalness about their playing, along with a sense of understated musicality, which conveyed the lyrical effusiveness of the sonatas. In the First Sonata, which Lee mentioned was the closest of all to her, the emotions were just as subtly brought out, from the agitation in the first movement, the underlying and profound sadness in the second, and the passion in the third movement, of which the ‘Regenlied’ or ‘rain song’ can be found, earning the sonata its nickname.

The passion continued all through the longer and more complex Third Sonata, op. 108, where the stormy key of d minor set the turbulent scene in the beginning and led to an immediate explosion of energy in the finale. Even at their loudest, Lee remained perfectly in tune and in control, the rich and full tone of her violin never overpowered by Lim.

As if there was not already enough Brahms for the evening, the duo returned to perform Brahms’ Scherzo from the collaboratively written F-A-E sonata, and the tender lied Wie Melodien zieht es mir leise durch denn Sinn, the first of five lieder in Op. 105 which is thematically linked to the Second Sonata. Thereafter, Lim jokingly mentioned that there was ‘just one more encore because today is a special day’, and turned the opening chords of the Second Sonata into a quasi birthday song.

Happy belated birthday, Shi Mei, and thank you both for the wonderful evening of music! And if anyone is wondering: nope, their music most definitely had inaudible barlines 🙂

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