BRAHMS: Viola Sonata in f, op. 120/1, op. 47. SCHUBERT: Sonata for Arpeggione (Viola) in a, D. 821. FRANCK: Sonata for Violin (Viola) in A.
Tabea Zimmermann (viola); Kirill Ge1stein (piano).
Myrios Classics MYR008 TT: 72:58.

A recital from the virtuosic Tabea Zimmermann, to me one of the two best violists out there -- the other being Paul Silverthorne. Most violists seem bland or timid to me, but both Silverthorne and Zimmermann have strong artistic personalities, which I would call "heroic" and "elegant," respectively. Both have recorded the Brahms, Silverthorne on Meridian CDE 84190. Silverthorne opened up this sonata to me, which I had heard mainly in its original clarinet version. Not even my favorite clarinetists, including the marvelous David Shifrin, could make me hear it as anything but a well-crafted bore. Silverthorne and his partner, pianist Julian Jacobson, showed me the passion in the score -- the death-haunted first movement, from the same source of musical inspiration as the Vier ernste Gesänge, the reflective slow movement, the joyous finale.

Zimmermann aims for lyrical elegance. Her passions are restrained, though definitely present, and indeed her restraint imparts power, like the pressure that builds up in a boiling pot with the lid on. She and Gelstein particularly shine in creating a convincing narrative between movements and in the finale, where you fill up with so much joy, you might burst. In this performance, you concentrate, not on individual movements, but on the sonata as a whole.

The remaining items are both arrangements. Cellists usually play the Schubert, written for the arpeggione, an instrument no longer in wide use. Zimmermann and Gelstein have given the sonata to the violist with, they claim, minimal adjustment. Apparently, most of the sonata lies comfortably for the viola. I've never cared much for this score, not even in Rostropovich's performance. The first movement goes on way past what its thematic and architectural invention can sustain. The second movement, lovely as it is, hasn't the depth of other Schubert slow movements, while the finale natters on without ever finding something interesting to say. For all their refinement, Zimmermann and Gelstein don't change my mind.

The Franck sonata, originally for violin, has been adapted for cellists. Again, the duo has arranged it for viola. I tend to consider Franck's non-organ music clunky, although the powerful Piano Quintet represents for me the best of it. The violin sonata doesn't lag far behind, but compared to any of the Beethovens or Brahmses, it's pretty small beer. The first movement, the most ambitious, is made up of thematic chunks, with obvious joins between them. The second movement makes a fuss about very little, despite its cyclical manipulations of first-movement ideas. The slow movement represents Franck at his worst, with the cyclic chunks even more obvious than usual. The finale partakes of some of the freshness of the slow movement of Franck's symphony. Overall, however, there's little sense of argumentative progression and transformation. Zimmermann and Gelstein don't try to overinflate and treat the sonata pretty much as a lyrical effusion, which seems to me exactly right. Poised in an emotional limbo, their first movement is exceptionally lovely, their second movement impetuous, and the finale heartfelt -- the performance so suave that you don't notice the crude structural joins, except in the slow movement. This and the version by Sarah Chang on EMI I currently count as my favorites.

S.G.S. (November 2013)