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Burton Rothleder
Fanfare, November 2010

To twist an old saw two ways: Familiarity breeds contempt of the unfamiliar; familiarity breeds comfort. The familiar G-Major piano and violin sonata was transcribed by contemporary violist Csaba Erdélyi for piano and viola, and was transposed to D in keeping with Brahms’s transposition to D for his piano and cello version of this sonata. Erdélyi reasoned that if it works for violin and for cello, then why not in between—for viola. To my ears, this music thus altered by Erdélyi flattens its appeal, ironically by adding a sharp. The problem is the lowered-by-a-fourth pitch, which relegates too much of the piano sound to the “bass-ment,” especially in the Adagio. The viola sonorities are also dulled. The conclusion of the Adagio suffers most where the beauty of the rising and falling piano figure is sharply diminished by the key shift down to B from the original E. Here, Erdélyi sharpens the pain, fittingly by deleting a flat. I have not heard Brahms’s cello version, and I might not like that either. ArkivMusic does not list Brahms’s cello transcription separately, but I did find a few cellists listed who have recorded it.

The clarinet is the focal instrument in Brahms’s last four chamber works: the A-Minor Trio (op. 114), the B-Minor Quintet (op. 115), and the two op. 120 sonatas. Clarinetist Richard Mühlfeld was the dedicatee of these four pieces. Brahms recognized that the viola could substitute for the clarinet in the two sonatas, therefore he published the sonatas for clarinet or viola. The clarinet version seems to have been rooted in tradition, but the viola version has recently taken a firm hold, especially with the growth of recorded music. Currently, ArkivMusic lists about 60 clarinet versions and close to 40 viola versions.

Now I confess my secret conversion. After growing up with the clarinet versions and, without ever listening, disdaining the viola versions, when I first heard the viola versions a few years ago, I became a convert (my “con-version”). The viola sound in these sonatas is much more satisfying to me than that of the clarinet, although I love both versions. With that prejudice on the table (or on the page, or on the screen), the opus 120 performances by these two artists are excellent in every respect. As to phrasing, dynamics, tone coloring, tempos—whatever qualities I can muster—these are performances that belong in everyone’s collection.

Jeremy Denk is a pianist of growing reputation, having appeared as soloist with several major orchestras throughout the world. Roberto Diaz is a noted violist. Formerly principal violist of the Philadelphia Orchestra, he is now president and CEO of the Curtis Institute of Music. Their contribution to the Brahms opus 120 sonatas is most welcome.

Paul L Althouse
American Record Guide, September 2010

Brahms was not averse to preparing or sanctioning transcriptions of his works for other instruments. The best-known examples are the two clarinet sonatas, which were authorized for viola and, with adjustments, even for violin. Another work with a similar history was the first violin sonata (in G). In 1896, shortly before he died, Brahms arranged the sonata for cello, transposing it down to D and making, according to the liner notes, about 200 changes to details in the music. Around 1990 the violist Csaba Erdelyi transcribed the same work for his instrument, using “no notes of [his] own, simply choices between the violin and cello version”. It’s a wonderful transcription; and violists, who don’t have a huge solo repertory, should seek it out.

Roberto Diaz has a fine list of orchestral credits in his resume: National Symphony under Rostropovich, BSO under Ozawa, and Minnesota Orchestra under Marriner. He then became principal in the Philadelphia Orchestra as well as Professor of Viola at Curtis. Recently he resigned from the orchestra and is now president of Curtis. I was unprepared, though, for how beautifully and musically he plays. He has superb control of his soft playing, and his sound is simply gorgeous. He also has a talented accompanist in Jeremy Denk, who brings out some details of Brahms’s writing that had escaped me in the past...A fabulous recording, even if you already have a favorite.

Mike D. Brownell, June 2010

This Naxos album, featuring violist Roberto Díaz and pianist Jeremy Denk, gives listeners a full, powerful, easily audible viola sound…Díaz’s tone is sultry and nuanced, and his attention to pacing and subtle variations in dynamics create an atmosphere of intimacy. Denk’s playing is likewise elegant and refined, with clear voicing and a sense of symbiosis with the viola. The album also contains a transcription of the Op. 78 Violin Sonata (heard here in the key of D, similar to the familiar transcription for cello) in which Díaz and Denk provide an entirely convincing performance of which Brahms’ surely would have approved., May 2010

Chamber music is, in a sense, an elaborate dance for two or more players. Although it is often described as a “conversation,” it is one done to specific rhythms and is filled with nuances that always approximate the elaborate interconnection of dance partners—with movements sometimes literally in dance forms. Thus, even though there are no overt dance movements in Brahms’ two viola sonatas (although the Allegretto grazioso of the first comes close), a worthwhile interpretation makes it sound as if the viola and piano are dancing with each other—now together, now apart, always in figurative as well as literal harmony. Roberto Díaz and Jeremy Denk for the most part get this sense of interconnectedness just right in their warm and well-played versions of the sonatas. The second of the two—a more introverted work—comes across particularly well, progressing with seeming inevitability from start to finish, the instruments intertwining with delicacy and skill. In the first sonata, in which the performers take a few unjustified and unneeded liberties with tempo, the result is not quite as effective, although when Díaz and Denk do let the music flow naturally, they mesh very well indeed. They are effective too in violist Csaba Erdélyi’s D major transcription of Brahms’ G major Violin Sonata No. 1—which the composer himself transcribed into D for cello. This work does not lie quite as comfortably on the viola as do the two sonatas (which are at least equally often played on clarinet): Brahms does seek richness in tone throughout his music, and this proves an effective use of the violin in this sonata as well as an attractive handling of the cello in the composer’s own transcription. The viola arrangement, in contrast, works all right as music but does not have the emotional heft of either the violin or cello version. Still, it is always nice to have another well-crafted work for viola players to bring to the chamber-music dance.

David Denton
David's Review Corner, April 2010

Though one was composed for violin and the other two were for clarinet, Brahms would surely have endorsed these performances played on the viola. That said, the fruity tone of Roberto Diaz’s instrument does move the centre of gravity of each work by replacing the brilliance and piquant bite of the original with a sonorous and weighty quality. The transcription of the First Violin Sonata was the work of the Hungarian violinist, Csaba Erdelyi, and in changing the key from G major to D major moving the feel of the sonata more closely to the sound Brahms created in his cello sonatas. Both clarinet sonatas were composed for Richard Muhlfeld, with Brahms hoping to earn a little more money in music sales by suggesting the viola as an alternative soloist. They are highly attractive, the change to viola working particularly well in the slow central movements. I also love the moments in the outer movements when it plunges into its lower realms with quite thrilling effect. It is all a question of sonorities, but when the pitch is lowered the finales somehow seem slower than in the original instrument version.  For many years Diaz was the distinguished principal of the Philadelphia Orchestra, and he phrases the pieces with much affection, intonation, for the most part, being of impeccable accuracy, and in Jeremy Denk he has a pianist of enviable clarity who never pulls back from the full range of the dynamic indications. The Canadian engineering team are superb.

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