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Bringing Brahms Alive with Little Fanfare

People who are just beginning to explore classical music often get snared by big names — the celebrated "brands" with massive catalogs and reputations to match. Those are often the safe choices. With virtually any mainstay of the classical repertoire, like the three masterful violin sonatas Brahms composed in 1879, 1886 and 1888, it's possible to find sparkling performances from lesser-known but artistically mighty interpreters. This recording, by Czech violinist Josef Suk and American pianist Julius Katchen, provides an excellent example.

Brahms Violin Sonatas was recorded in London's Kingsway Hall, which is known for its pristine acoustics. It captures two careful, artistically fastidious performers doing their un-flashy best to bring Brahms alive. The opening sonata is sometimes known as the "Rain" sonata for its steady, consoling rhythm, as heard on Op. 78: "Adagio" (audio). Hewing close to Brahms' intent, Suk plays the themes deliberately, emphasizing his pure and wondrously elastic tone. By avoiding the look-at-me calisthenics employed by many top-draw soloists, Suk allows Katchen a bit of running room, and together they sustain lively, easygoing conversations. In the second movement of Sonata No. 2, subtitled "andante tranquillo" (audio), it's easy to hear the years these two spent playing together, and the sense of intuition about tempos and phrase endings they developed.

Those small things count, or should, at least as much as star power or charisma. They're the outgrowth of thoughtful music-making, and more than that, a sign of great artistic humility. Some big stars lard up Brahms and other composers with extraneous flourishes intended to "personalize" their readings, but Suk and Katchen handle Brahms so that listeners can appreciate his music as it is, beautiful and logical.

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Tom Moon has been writing about pop, rock, jazz, blues, hip-hop and the music of the world since 1983.
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