Two hours of nothing but Brahms is a heavy sit, even for the hardiest Brahms enthusiast. Though the composer probably never intended for his three violin sonatas to be performed as a cycle, it has nevertheless become one of the pinnacles of chamber music in the manner of the ever-ubiquitous Beethoven cycles. Though the three sonatas were written within ten years of one another, they could not be any more different, and the contrasting characters of the three works were brought to the fore by Maxim Vengerov and Polina Osetinskaya.

Maxim Vengerov
© Benjamin Ealovega

Composed immediately following his monumental violin concerto, the first sonata could not be any more different in character – in contrast to the formidable and technically demanding writing of the concerto, the sonata is all wistful nostalgia. Vengerov and Osetinskaya opened the concert with a wonderfully hushed sound, achieving a salon-like intimacy in the massive confines of the Barbican. As the movement progressed into the rapturous second theme, Vengerov and Osetinskaya preserved this melancholy by adopting a slightly slower tempo and a more veiled, smoky tone in the upper register. What was most striking was Vengerov’s eschewing of the traditional portamenti and wide vibrato associated with Brahms, lending a freshness and directness to the piece while preserving the long cantabile lines. Though Vengerov occasionally struggled with intonation and Osetinskaya’s passagework seemed slightly muddy, they both settled in nicely for the central Adagio. Also taken at a slower-than-usual tempo, they brought out the funereal atmosphere of the movement, once again avoiding overt dramatisms in order to evoke the distant, nostalgic feel of the sonata. The return of the funeral march in the closing movement was more dramatic, contrasting nicely with the delicate intertwining arpeggios between the two instruments in the rest of the finale.

The second sonata, composed during Brahms’ stay on Lake Thun, is often cited as one of his sunniest works. Fittingly, Vengerov adopted a more open sound, with a wider vibrato and more prominent portamenti. Particularly notable in the opening movement was the musical camaraderie between Vengerov and Osetinskaya, each taking turns to comment on the other’s phrase – chamber music at its finest! The central movement, which oscillates between a playful vivace and a lyrical andante, is one of Brahms’ most charming creations, and the contrast between the sections was wonderfully done. However, the closing movement came as somewhat of a disappointment, with some messy entrances and sounding surprisingly underpowered from both players coming after the ardent lyricism of the first two movements.

The so-called F-A-E Scherzo was Brahms’ first chamber work, written as part of a larger project dedicated to the violinist Joseph Joachim. Though the remaining movements (composed by Schumann and Dietrich) are rarely performed, the Scherzo has retained its popularity due to its rhythmic vitality. Vengerov and Osetinskaya approached the movement as a stand-alone showpiece, both hammering out the triplet ostinato with percussive vigour and leaning into the chords with satisfying power. Despite its brevity, it was a dramatic start to the second half while also showing how Brahms’ musical and technical skill had developed since this early work.

Though the third sonata was written nearly concurrently with the second sonata, it could not be more different. Composed in four movements rather than three, the sonata comes across more as a miniature symphony in its density. It is also Brahms’ most daring work harmonically, full of unsettling chromatic passages. The opening, marked sotto voce, was appropriately hushed, with Vengerov adopting a vibratoless sound. This ghostly atmosphere was quickly dispelled by Osetinskaya’s humongous block chords, with both players eventually adopting a soloist-like sound that filled the Barbican. Particularly striking was the development section, full of sinewy chromatics in which the opening melody is merely hinted at in nearly pointillistic form between the two instruments. The second movement is Brahms at his most luscious, finely displaying Vengerov’s opulent sound high on the G string. In contrast, the third movement Scherzo put Osetinskaya’s playing to the forefront, providing a fine display for her elegant touch. The driving triplets of the finale brought the F-A-E Scherzo to mind but taken to the extreme – the breakneck tempo brought the evening to a rousing close. However, it being a Vengerov concert, that was not all – his first encore of the Second Hungarian Dance brought out yet another aspect of Brahms’ compositional style, and Fritz Kreisler’s Caprice Viennois and Jules Massenet’s perennial Méditation provided some much-needed repose following the whirlwind Brahms marathon.