Top Ear

Yuja/Kavakos Brahms Sonatas

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Leonard Ip writes (translated from the Chinese by Jeremy Lee)

Chamber music performed by starry solo artists are said to not mesh together as well as long-standing musical partnerships due to the incompatibility of individual artistic personalities. This may well be true, but I’m always willing to listen to these kinds of recordings because long-standing musical partnerships often lack the sparks generated between soloists. From a very early stage, Yuja Wang as a soloist has often been compared to Argerich, but fortunately her collaborative ability in chamber music also matches up to this queen of the piano, as beautifully shown in this album of Brahms with Leonidas Kavakos.

Yuja Wang’s sonority can be very large, but her sound is never “weighty”. In Brahms this brings a very interesting sensation in that even in the Brahmsian low registers her tone never “sinks in”. In her solo album Transformation her Paganini Variations are played with exceptional flair and sparkle, but you’ll have to go to Kissin or Katchen for more hefty interpretations, and the same goes for her performance in the present album. People who like this style will praise it with the words “refreshing” and “nimble”; those who don’t will say “not heavy enough”. This trait suits Kavakos’ sinewy, golden tone and long-lined phrasing very well: the result is Brahms on a diet. The first and second sonatas are both lyrical works; Kavakos plays with simple elegance and minimal portamento and vibrato, and uses clean and linear bowings to etch out the melodic lines. Compared to the flashy Mutter (whose DG recording is more characterful than her EMI one) and the freer Perlman, Kavakos is the more understated one yet no less persuasive. Meanwhile, Wang’s sparse pedaling creates a very clean musical frame, while her variations in touch in the softer sections are done with exceptional clarity, providing a neat accompaniment for Kavakos.

The third sonata reveals a more autumnal Brahms, and for Kavakos and Wang, the task of presenting this Brahmsian aesthetic and style has become ever more challenging. But if we don’t try to force the received Brahms style onto the performers, I actually think the duo’s luminous tone and energetic style matches the narrative of the music very well, and the athletic finale reveals both musicians at their most kinetic and vibrant (one of many examples: in the piano’s accompaniment starting from the fifth bar, most pianists play legato, while Wang’s staccato playing forcefully propels the arching crescendo). Kavakos’ tonal purity and lengthy bowing, too, shines a new light on the Adagio. As for the couplings: the C minor scherzo from the F.A.E sonata opens the disc imposingly, while the famous Wiegenlied that concludes the disc is played with tender loving care. These couplings also show a very thoughtfully repertoire arrangement.

Even though I prefer the pre-diet Brahms (leading the pack is rich and deep Zukerman/Barenboim on DG, while there are numerous great 3rd sonatas on disc), it strikes me that Suk/Katchen (Decca)’s classic reading also is pretty athletic, and those who enjoy that recording may similarly enjoy Kavakos/Wang. The recording favors the violin but offers the piano sufficient presence.


  • Album name:  Brahms:  The Violin Sonatas
  • Performers:  Leonidas Kavakos (violin);  Yuja Wang (piano)
  • Label:  Decca 478 6442
  • Sonics:  Stereo DDD
  • Total playing time: 1:16:41

Author: Top Ear

Musical hooligans.

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