Johannes Brahms: Sonaten für Viola und Klavier

Kim Kashkashian, Robert Levin

Kim Kashkashian and Robert Levin, musical allies for twenty years, focus their shared knowledge and skills in imaginative and moving performances of these "late works" by Johannes Brahms. Written in 1894, just three years before the composer’s death, these sonatas have often been considered as a link between the musical thought of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Featured Artists Recorded

November 1996, Mozartsaal des Kultur- & Kongresszentrums Liederhalle, Stuttgart

Original Release Date


  • Sonate für Viola und Klavier Es-Dur op. 120/2
    (Johannes Brahms)
  • 1Allegro amabile08:29
  • 2Allegro appasionato - Sostenuto - Tempo I05:30
  • 3Andante con moto - Più tranquillo07:21
  • Sonate für Viola und Klavier f-moll op. 120/1
    (Johannes Brahms)
  • 4Allego appasionato - Sostenuto ed espressivo08:04
  • 5Andante un poco Adagio05:05
  • 6Allegretto grazioso04:24
  • 7Vivace05:09
Stereoplay, Die Audiophile
"Die sensationelle Einspielung der Hindemith-Sonaten 1985 auf ECM etablierte die Detroiterin armenischer Abstammung Kim Kashkashian fest als Top-Bratschistin. Jetzt wendet sie sich mit ihrem Klavierpartner Robert Levin dem spätesten Brahms zu.
Die beiden Sonaten opus 120 ­ depressiv bis leise auflebend die eine, idyllisch bis abgeklärt die andere ­ verlangen kein vorlautes Herausdrängen, sondern lyrisches Hineinversenken. Wie ungemein schlicht und schön die beiden Interpreten diesem Anspruch gerecht werden, zeigt beispielhaft das inniglich ausgesungene Andante der f-Moll Sonate. Kashkashians perfekter, von technischer Mühe gänzlich freier Ton scheint hier schwerelos schwebend, quasi auf Händen getragen vom einfühlsamen Levin.
Mir sagt diese in ihrer Geschlossenheit faszinierende Interpretation angesichts der Grundstimmung beider Werke am meisten zu. Die perfekt austarierte Aufnahme liefert ein berückendes, konturiertes Klangbild in Pastelltönen."
Lothar Brandt, Stereoplay
"These late, autumnal chamber works have been shared equally through the years by clarinettists and violists, but in recordings like this, one sides with the violists. One of the best today, Kim Kashkashian gives the music a sense of subtext that reveals the wisdom and sadness of a composer who had a few years before he declared himself burned out. Her performance of the first sonata is excellent; the second one is outstanding, as she and pianist Robert Levin perform with a level of identification and spontaneity that suggest they're making up the music as they go along, living the tragedy along with the composer."
David Patrick Stearns, USA Today
"Brahms' third-to-last works, these sonatas are astonishing pieces looking back to the classical-romantic vocabulary he exploited and refined so fully while prophesying the structural and sonic freedom of 20th century modernism. These extraordinarily effortless and seamless works teem with emotion that is voluptuously abundant yet subsumed to the demands of a melodic structure that itself partakes of a sublime futurity. Listen, then listen again to grasp that one movement is a waltz, another a theme and variations, a third based on a country dance. Kashkashian and Levin perform with ravishing and egoless attention; they and their instruments seem to become the music."
Fredric Koepel, The Commercial Appeal
Si l'on peut préférer la version originale pour clarinette, la plus souvent jouée, la version pour alto mérite bien un nouvel enregistrement, surtout lorsqu'on dispose comme ici d'une virtuose irréprochable. Kim Kashkashian a déjà fait preuve de sa belle entente avec le pianiste Robert Levin dans les sonates pour alto d'Hindemith (ECM). Le couple parie pour la simplicité et la rigueur, ce qui n'empêche pas l'épanouissement subtil des ¦uvres. Secondée, plutôt qu'accompagnée, par un Robert Levin aussi naturel qu'expressif, l'altiste rend pleine justice à la richesse mélodique de ces ¦uvres sans jamais tomber dans un style démonstratif ni trop s'appuyer sur les contrastes.
Pablo Galonce, Le Monde de la Musique
Du Brahms tardif. Le Brahms des derniers sursauts, des doutes surmontés, celui des adieux à la musique du XIX e siècle : les deux sonates pour alto et piano de l'opus 120 font preuve d'une liberté formelle et harmonique sidérante, elles glissent vers des horizons sonores nouveaux, toujours lyriques et déjà troublants. L'aspect le plus remarquable de l'interprétation de Kim Kashkashian et du pianiste Robert Levin réside dans cette prise en compte d'un univers musical qui bascule. Le lyrisme est préservé mais aussi chaque construction étrange, chaque passage "experimental". Les deux artistes, aussi présents l'un que l'autre, pleinement sonores, articulent avec aplomb cette musique d'un départ vers le futurŠ Un des plus beaux moments de musique de chambre qui soit.
Dominique Rosset, L'Hebdo
Kim Kashkashian and Robert Levin, musical allies for twenty years, focus their shared knowledge and skills in imaginative and moving performances of these "late works" by Johannes Brahms. Written in 1894, just three years before the composer's death, these Sonatas, existing in versions for both clarinet and viola, have often been considered as a link between the musical thought of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. "Both the end and the beginning of an epoch come together here", writer Lotte Thaler notes, "Romanticism and Modernism, standing at the turn of the century like a Janus head."

The "modernism" – or otherwise – of Brahms has been debated extensively in this centenary year, with critics looking anew at the composer's impact on the Second Vienna School in particular. Schoenberg, and his students Berg and Webern, revered Brahms as the father of modern music. "The chromatic path has begun!", Anton von Webern exulted on hearing the Song of the Fates. But Schoenberg put it best in 1931: "From Brahms I learnt uneven numbers of measures, extension and contraction of phrases; not to be mean, not to stint myself when clarity demands more space; clarity, yet richness." Yet this perception of Brahms as a structuralist has often confused both those admirers and detractors who hear in the composer only the '"dreamy romanticism" that charmed Elgar and his contemporaries.

Kim Kashkashian clarifies the issue: "What Schoenberg took from Brahms was a way of looking at the thematic material being used and giving it a structural importance that wasn't necessarily based upon the harmonic structures Brahms was using. But that structural edifice also exists in Brahms and in that sense Brahms was using techniques that are the same of those of the following fifty to seventy-five years. The kernel is there – also in the Viola Sonatas. Brahms takes a structural kernel which he can either magnify or make smaller until it's only a few notes, and it is something which will reappear and be a key organizing factor in the music. At the same time, however, Brahms has a harmonic organizing factor which is not modern. So the 'old' and the 'new' exist side by side."

Kashkashian has been playing these pieces for a quarter-century. "We violists have a so-called limited repertoire – and even these pieces we share with the clarinet! They are pieces that one usually comes to early in one's training, but there's always more to learn from them. Just as, if you look at a great painting long enough you will see more and more things in it, so it is with these sonatas. They're constructed so tightly, so perfectly. All kinds of relationships gradually become apparent: 'Ah, he's using the same motive in the sonata as he does in the other sonata.' Or, 'he's hiding a little secret out of one sonata in the other'. Study the construction of these pieces and you're seeing an edifice, an architecture. And what that architecture means to you changes as the circumstances of your life change. A kind of evolution goes on. Part of my work is always about going back, taking another look, finding another level, and relating it to the outer life. When first playing Brahms, as a teenager or in your twenties, it's very tempting to use the compositions to express your hotbloodedness and passion. It's only later that you see this very crystal-clear edifice that becomes more and more important. And then it's less a matter of expressing a momentary emotion and more a question of expressing an elemental warmth which is determined by the structure."

Johannes Brahms was a notoriously self-critical composer. His conviction that "musical tradition evolves only by submitting itself to endless critique" (to quote Brahms scholar Malcolm McDonald) often caused him to take a harsh view even of some of his finest creations. In correspondence, he could be flippant about his work. Literalists amongst music historians have pounced upon such comments and, at times, over-emphasized them.

"Studying a composer's writings, studying also the surrounding social aspects of his life, looking at what has happening politically, and at what other art was being was being produced – all of these can be valid ways into a piece," says Kashkashian. "But whether we can talk about Brahms's 'state of mind' on the basis of a few letters is a moot point."

In 1891, Brahms had written to his future editor Eusebius Mandyczewski declaring, impulsively, that he would "compose no more." The decision, of course, was not final. His friendship with clarinettist Richard Mühlfield encouraged the composition, over the next few years, of the Clarinet Trio op. 114, the Clarinet Quintet op. 115 and the Sonatas for Clarinet and Piano op. 120. The version for viola of the latter may have been prompted by Brahms's long association with one of his most ardent supporters, violinist Joseph Joachim. It was to Joachim, at least, that Brahms expressed a typically self-belittling remark: "I fear that both pieces are perhaps still a little unsatisfactory and awkward as viola sonatas". The relative merits of the clarinet and viola versions have been a subject of discussion ever since.

Kim Kashkashian's perspective on the matter is evenhanded: "I would say there are strengths and characteristics brought out in each piece depending on which instrument is playing them. It's rather like dressing up the same body with a different set of clothes. I would say that the E-flat Sonata benefits from the viola, and the F-minor Sonata benefits most from the clarinet. That's a very personal opinion, but I think both pieces exhibit certain priorities or values depending on which instrument is playing them." With this in mind, Kashkashian decided to take seriously Brahms's "reservations" about the viola versions; the result is a unique interpretation:

"I went back to the original score and am playing, very often, in the original octave. What you hear when you listen to this particular CD of the Viola Sonatas is sometimes in the written viola octave and sometimes in the original octave. At the time, the average violist was not expected to be able to execute some of the greater range manœuvres that the clarinet could encompass, and the upper range of the viola was not considered characteristic. On the other hand, there are passages where I stay in the original viola range. At those points where Brahms went down to the low C on the viola – which the clarinet doesn't have – I took again the liberty of assuming that he might have written that for the clarinet had the note existed. Essentially, I thought: This he probably changed because of violists' habits of the day, and this he probably rewrote because we have a low C that the clarinet does not have. So some of the music remains for me in the viola range and some of it has gone back up to the clarinet range."

Technical innovations notwithstanding, the power of the performance resides in its drawing out of the music's full range of temperaments. Some commentators have drawn attention to the "cry of despair" in these "late works" of Brahms. Kim Kashkashian and Robert Levin hear much more. Kashkashian: "Despair is there, among other elemental cries. There is also pure joy – and recognition of what is to come. The beauty of these pieces lies in their clarified emotional balance. All the emotions are there, in all their purity."