“Glory be to God for dappled things.” Gerard Manley Hopkins could not have known Brahms’ autumnal sonatas for violin and viola when he wrote Pied Beauty in 1877, for Brahms didn’t start composing his first published violin sonata until the following summer, but their mellow glow would surely merit a place alongside the poet’s “fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls” and “finches' wings”. While sunshine blazed over crowds bustling along London’s South Bank, celeb-spotting ahead of the Bafta Awards next door, the light was certainly more dappled inside the Queen Elizabeth Hall where Lawrence Power and Pavel Kolesnikov tackled their near three-hour marathon Brahms matinee of the complete violin and viola sonatas.

Lawrence Power © Jack Liebeck
Lawrence Power
© Jack Liebeck

Two musical figures of the 19th century loomed large over the five sonatas on the programme – and neither was a viola player. Violin virtuoso Joseph Joachim was a great friend of Brahms since they met in Hamburg in 1853. Brahms dedicated his Violin Concerto to Joachim, whose influence is felt in all three of the violin sonatas, the second of which was a peace offering from Brahms when their friendship was clouded following Joachim’s divorce. The great player who inspired the other two sonatas was Richard Mühlfeld, clarinettist of the Meiningen Orchestra whose playing tempted Brahms out of retirement to compose four late chamber masterpieces for the instrument. Yet Brahms, possibly with a financially astute mind towards publishing his scores as widely as possible, arranged the two clarinet sonatas in versions for both violin and viola. The violin versions are rarely played, but viola players have adopted these sonatas to the core of their repertoire.

Power, switching back and forth from violin to his usual viola, proved an affable host, introducing each section of his recital with anecdotes from Brahms’ biography and neatly prefacing three of the sonatas with extra numbers, including a transcription of Nachklang, one of the two songs Brahms quotes in the finale of his G major sonata. Power’s violin is sweet-toned, with almost a fragility to its upper register, but there was plenty of sinew too and his fierce bowing resulted in a lot of horsehair shed onto the platform by the end of a long afternoon. Although tall, Power still stretched onto tiptoe to reach the highest notes. A contained performer, he nevertheless bounced and hopped in the impish pizzicato section of the A major sonata’s middle movement, and tore into the finale of the dark, obsessive D minor. The G major’s third movement came off beautifully, Brahms’ Regenlied theme pattering against the window pane like falling teardrops.

Pavel Kolesnikov © Eva Vermandel
Pavel Kolesnikov
© Eva Vermandel

Kolesnikov, crouching low, nose to the score, was a sensitive partner, eating up the thick chordal piano writing with ease, gradating his dynamics well. There were moments when he could have been more assertive – the grand statements in the First Viola Sonata’s Allegro appassionato, for instance – but the finale’s opening notes chimed brightly.

The two viola sonatas were gorgeously played, Power digging out a husky, grainy timbre from his instrument’s C string. His feathery vibrato and veiled tone sighed with regret in the F minor sonata’s nostalgic second movement, but the Ländler of the Allegretto grazioso needed to sing out more. The autumnal E flat sonata was notable for its dark, caramel colours and the passionate Hungarian Dance feel to the second movement, the sostenuto middle section’s meaty double-stopped chords hungrily dispatched. The finale’s variations balanced wistfulness and melancholy, a teasing game of dappled sunlight and shadows.

****1