Recorded live at the Heimbach Chamber Music Festival, this three-disc box of Brahms’s duo sonatas gives a vivid idea of what must be an attractive event, held in a picturesque hall by a lake amid trees. The pianist Lars Vogt is its mastermind, not just because he appears on all three discs but because he is so much more than an accompanist, often the leader, even with artists as characterful as Sabine Meyer and Christian Tetzlaff.
Vogt is even more dominant over cellist Boris Pergamenschikow, partly because of a slightly backward balance for the cello (some would say a natural balance) and partly because he tends to set a fast pace and leaves it to the soloist to keep up, as in the finale of the First Cello Sonata or the Allegro appassionato third movement of Op 99. The ensemble is not ideally crisp, but the imprecisions are no more worrying than in a fair proportion of live recordings: the ‘live’ quality is what matters.
Even so, despite many subtleties in Pergamenschikow’s playing, I still prefer the warmth and resonance of Jacqueline du Pré and Daniel Barenboim (now reissued in EMI’s Great Recordings of the Century series). Pergamenschikow and Vogt relax more in the two sets of Schumann pieces (Op 94, quite a rarity played on the cello), as well as the Brahms song transcription.
Sabine Meyer uses Vergebliches Ständchen as an encore but the pay-off there, with the maiden peremptorily shutting the window in her lover’s face, is inevitably less effective when played on the clarinet rather than sung. In the two sonatas Vogt and Meyer are well-matched for expressiveness and flexible rubato. Thea King and Clifford Benson (also just reissued, on Hyperion) are steadier and less personal but equally committed. The extra freedom of the Meyer/Vogt readings is very much part of the live performance, with Meyer producing her glorious peaches-and-cream tone, where King offers a sharper contrast between the bright toned opening of Op 120 No 1 and the mellowness of the second subject.
The Second Sonata comes first on the EMI disc; the Berg works which succeed it inspire magnetically intense performances from both musicians: Vogt rightly treats the Op 1 Sonata as a post-Romantic piece.
In many ways Vogt’s most satisfying partnership is with Tetzlaff: the Scherzo which Brahms contributed to the composite FAE Sonata with Schumann and Dietrich receives an exceptionally powerful performance with emphatic cross-rhythms. In the numbered sonatas their incisiveness, urgency and lightness of touch makes them formidable rivals to the two classic versions listed. The opening of Op 100 may seem almost casual but full intensity is quickly established, and the opening of the D minor, Op 108, has a hushed, nervy quality; this is a highly individual reading. The discs come in separate jewel-cases, which suggests they might become available separately – particularly welcome with Tetzlaff’s disc.
Vogt’s disc of the late piano works is a conventional studio recording. Whether for that reason or not, Vogt’s speeds tend to be very much on the broad side, especially compared with Stephen Kovacevich’s always-refreshing performances on Philips. Even so, Vogt’s warmth and his ability to convey a sense of spontaneous invention make these a welcome supplement to the Festival performances. They are very well recorded.