November 21, 1999
The New York Times (reprinted by permission)
modified January 2001

Brahms Without the Usual Comfort

BRAHMS: THE VIOLIN SONATAS Pamela Frank, violinist; Peter Serkin, pianist. London 289 455-643; CD. Reviewed by Bernard D. Sherman

"Most current Brahms performances," complains the pianist Stephen Kovacevich, "suggest a comfortable, overweight bank manager reluctantly refusing an overdraft." Not these ones. To Pamela Frank and Peter Serkin, the operative word for Brahms seems to be "intense."

The intensity manifests itself in various ways, including a few extreme tempos. For example, the artists begin the Third Sonata's Adagio as slowly as can be done without losing the pulse.

But their noble phrasing makes the tempo work. And when the opening theme returns later, differentiated from its initial appearance by a flowing new bass line and by the instruments' singing it together, the artists play it somewhat faster. The increase in tempo sounds natural and adds urgency to what may be the most heart-rending passage in all the sonatas.

For all their intensity, the pair knows how to shape movements, holding back in one place so as to build toward something more passionate later. In only one movement - the opening of the First Sonata - does this approach leave me unsatisfied. While the pair builds to an exceptionally rhapsodic second thematic group, the opening theme sound a bit matter of fact to me. Their fast tempo suits the second group perfectly but, for me, not the gentle lyricism of the opening. I prefer a more flexible tempo in this music, starting more slowly and speeding up as the passion builds* .

The piano parts in all these sonatas are full of polyphonic and metrical complexities; Mr. Serkin manages to clarify them all while also integrating them into a fluid musical whole. His phrasing can be quite beautiful, as in the opening bars of the slow movement of the First Sonata. Ms. Frank's quiet entry thereafter demonstrates her subtlety of color and phrasing. Both artists make sense of Brahms's articulation marks, which are often ignored.

These performances may strike some listeners as over-the-top, but to my ears the results are stimulating and often powerful. And no one, in any case, will call them comfortable.

* An afterthought not in the original Times article: I think I understand what Frank and Serkin were trying to do. This movement - perhaps the most beautiful in Brahms - is sometimes wallowed in at too slow a tempo. Yet it is marked Vivace ma non troppo, and has a dancing lilt that, when realized, counters sentimentality and can add to the emotional impact. Further, the second group (which I called "rhapsodic") seems to need more speed than the opening; Brahms himself marked the first theme of the second group con anima, "with spirit."

Still, I feel that the high speed that Frank and Serkin set out with undercuts the quiet beauty of the opening (marked mezza voce [half voice] as well as piano [soft]). What works for the second group is too fast for the first. A simple solution: take the first theme at a speed that works for it and then let the tempo pick up as the exposition proceeds. Frank/Serkin do this to some extent-- their highest speed, at the climax of the exposition, is almost 9 percent faster than their opening speed.

Serkin's grandfather Adolph Busch (in a 1931 recording with Serkin's father Rudolf) begins the movement more slowly than Frank/Serkin - about 7% slower-- but accelerates about twice as much relative to the opening, about 19% over the course of the exposition. The tempo rises naturally with the intensity of the musical expression and the character of the themes. I love this recording, and the fact that it came from artists committed to the ideal of classicism and objectivity makes it all the remarkable. [Return to main text]