When Brahms completed his G major String Quintet, the one with the significant opus number, he declared it was his last work, drew up a will and began to go through his unpublished manuscripts, destroying everything that he did not want to publish. Luckily for posterity he went to Meinigen in 1891 to hear the famous orchestra under its new conductor, and there he was struck by the beauty of the playing of clarinettist Richard Mühlfeld. The result was the Clarinet Trio, the Clarinet Quintet and three years later the two clarinet sonatas. On publication Brahms provided alternative viola parts for all four works, and for the sonatas, violin parts as well. This was common practice to ensure the widest possible circulation of the scores. Brahms lavished great care on the sonatas’ viola parts, new figuration, double-stopping and even extensions of the melody in some places. Violists have been grateful ever since.
The Brahms Viola Sonatas are radical late works, completely free in their treatment of formal models and equally liberated in their expression. The music seems unconstrained yet highly concentrated, spare and rich, yet without resistance. No longer do we have clear, well-outlined thematic contours nor do we have clear distinctions between main and subsidiary themes. This is replaced by a criss-crossing of structures based on Brahms’ concept of the developing variation. Some see these works as deeply nostalgic, but their mastery of perfection rises above such a shallow emotional interpretation.
The opening movement is indeed marked by its passionate outbursts but even more by its moments of meditative beauty. Brahms did not have much more music in him at this point, so each note is made to speak more clearly. His style was always intensely self-critical, he would spend years on a work, chiselling perfection from draft after draft. Here in the first two movements of this extraordinary work he achieves miracles, most especially in the exquisite Andante. The delicious Allegretto is a Viennese Ländler full of charm and counterpoint, the melody appearing in imitation, inversion and stretto, while the equally easy-going Trio turns to the minor without any change of mood. The rondo finale brings this glorious work to a rousing close.