for a good time, call brahms

I had the best time this morning.  By this time of the summer, I’ve usually frittered away a large portion of my free time on the bike or in front of the tv watching the pros ride their bikes.  The viola gets put away in the studio and gets to think about all that it has done during the previous season, until I finally get my desire to play it back in my heart, brain, and fingers.  Suffice it to say, I’ve been inspired by a few things that I’ve seen and heard lately.

First of all, my wife Heather, who has been out of commission for over a year due to a playing injury, has been seriously on the mend, and is now back up to full speed.  Listening to her practice Bach, Popper etudes, and other repertoire that has been missing around the house for over a year has been seriously inspiring to me!

Another factor is that I recently purchased an amazing CD by one of the great violists of our time, a German woman by the name of Tabea Zimmermann.  She recently release a recording of the three solo sonatas by the German composer Max Reger, alongside two of Bach’s great solo suites originally written for the cello.  Her artistry in these recordings is nothing short of revelatory.  We all know that Bach’s compositions for solo cello/viola are great masterpieces, but Reger?  Reger was always that poor, idiot great nephew of Bach whose unfortunate compositions we were forced to play by teachers who were forced to play them by their teachers.  This amazing recording really has opened my eyes to what wonderful, characteristic pieces these are for the viola.  Each sonata is dedicated to a different violist with whom Reger was acquainted, and in a way, the whole set of three sonatas is a whole, meta-composition, where each succeeding work is a prismatic variation of that which precedes it.

This morning, however, I had the great privilege to go over the pianist Cary Lewis’ home to read through some pieces both new and familiar for viola and piano.  We started with the piece Morpheus, by Rebecca Clarke, a wonderfully atmospheric work that shows both her wonderful imagination and ability to write for her own instrument.  We then read an Elegy by Clarke’s husband, James Friskin, who was a great teacher of piano at the Juilliard School for many years.  We then went on to another British female composer, Pamela Harrison, reading a few movements of her Sonata.

To wind up the morning, we then turned to the two sonatas by Johannes Brahms.  Originally written for the clarinet (for the great muse of Brahms at the end of his composition career, Richard Mühlfeld, for whom Brahms also wrote the Clarinet Quintet and Clarinet Trio), Brahms also made transcriptions for viola (an instrument which he loved, but these transcriptions apparently did not sit well with him) and violists have eagerly taken on their challenges almost from the beginning.  If you cannot enjoy playing Brahms, then you really have lost all of your former joy in music.  Brahms’ writing, especially in his late, autumnal period, is so rich, so fluid and facile and dense, that it thoroughly rewards return visits again and again to find new turns of phrase, a new piquancy of harmonic change, or just to enjoy the journey again.  So it was a joy to return to these works after a long absence (I haven’t played the E-flat sonata since grad school, and have never publicly performed the F minor) with a pianist of such depth and experience as Cary.  My batteries are officially recharged.

6 Replies to “for a good time, call brahms”

  1. Charles,

    What did you think of the Friskin Elegy? It is on a long list of items I want to track down, and I wonder if it is worth moving up on my list.

  2. Speaking of the Bach Suites, I grew up with the impression that they were written for the Viola Da Gamba. Several years ago someone told me that they had been written for the Lute! So, anyway I went looking in Wikipedia and found another idea: File:Sigiswald Kuijken.JPG – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

  3. speaking of “for a good time, call brahms,” i somehow remember hearing about a “black book” that brahms kept listing some of his female “acquaintances” with annotations as to their specific abilities, etc.

    does anyone here know more about this? perhaps jan swafford is the one to, uh, “call” regarding this question?

  4. hahahaha, i may be exactly as you advertise, but, what about our friend Johannes?

    i wonder if the Hamburg Hochschule fur Musik und Gemutlichkeit has his “black book” on display?

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