The viola player discusses why he finally felt ready to record Brahms's two autumnal sonatas.
French viola star Antoine Tamestit and pianist Cédric Tiberghien have turned to Brahms for their new album on harmonia mundi, recording the composer's two viola sonatas and, with baritone Matthias Goerne, his Zwei Gesänge Op. 91.
Brahms's two sonatas must be staples of any viola player's repertoire. Why have you decided to record them only now?
I have to admit that for a long time I didn't really feel ready to record them. I practised them a lot as a student, I played them a lot in my first concerts, but I always had a sort of fear that I was not going deep enough into them, that I wasn't understanding the maturity behind them. I was always attracted to them and I always found them incredible and wonderfully touching, but I was scared to play them!
So what changed?
Starting to perform them with Cédric Tiberghien. He's so poetic and so refined, and as a pianist – even as a solo pianist – he's always looking to make intricate chamber music, to subtly link all the parts together. Suddenly I had another view of these pieces. The other key thing was to play them, not only with the Stradivarius viola that I'm lucky enough to play, but also with an older period piano. I visited of a collection of pianos in Vienna, some of them owned and played in Brahms, and that really changed my view. Somehow my fear lifted and I felt much more at ease with the pieces. I'm now totally obsessed with them and want to play them all the time!
Brahms originally wrote the sonatas for clarinet. How has that informed your approach to them?
You feel the fluidity of the clarinet in them, and many of the virtuosic passages are made to measure for the clarinet. I listened to a lot of clarinettists (Jörg Widmann, Martin Fröst and the period clarinet player Lorenzo Coppola – wonderful musicians), and I learnt a lot, mostly from their fluidity. I also took lessons with Jörg Widmann on the sonatas where we shared our views together. Ten or 15 years ago, for a couple of years, I tried to play only the clarinet version of the pieces – so I played very high on the viola. That helped me play the viola version with more fluidity. So definitely I find the clarinet version has to inspire viola players. But maybe the clarinettists have to be inspired by viola players too!
Can you explain a little more about the instruments used in the recording? First, your Stradivarius…
The Stradivarius has been my usual instrument for already 13 years now, and it's a wonderful instrument that has evolved and opened up a lot. And it's probably got used to my rhythm of playing, my rhythm of travelling. But I could feel right from the very beginning, independently of me, that it's an instrument that wants to sing, that it has a cantabile quality, a legato quality. Somehow even in the fastest, most aggressive passages, you feel the sound wanting to vibrate, to undulate, to “round up”, and there's something beautifully human about the voice, the colour of this instrument. It's really an inspiration for me.
And the piano?
It's a Bechstein of 1899, and one of the first, if not the first, that was in the Wigmore Hall in London – it was very generously brought from London to Berlin for the recording. It's an instrument that Cédric played at the BBC proms in London and also as part of his regular appearances at the Wigmore Hall, and so he knew it well. It's incredible because it has everything that also I discovered in Vienna: all the tessituras sound different, or at least have a unique quality. It's as if there are three or four different personalities spread across the keyboard. And I'm convinced that Brahms played around with qualities like these in his composition.
The album features two songs for baritone, viola and piano, in which you both were joined by Matthias Goerne. What was it like to work with him on this?
It was wonderful. I've been an admirer of Matthias Goerne and his voice for many years. Somehow everything is music with him, the breathing is already musical, the movement of the body is already musical, is already part of the whole phrase. And that's how it was in the recording. We didn't have very much time, but felt very comfortable straight away. And when he started, our hair stood up on end, and we were swept away with him in a tornado of feelings, somehow getting incorporated in his breathing as if he was breathing for all three of us. We completely forgot our own instruments.
And you also play – or should that be "sing"? – a couple of songs on the viola…
Cédric and I played a lot of the Lieder for pleasure, and the more we played, the more it changed our view of the sonatas: we saw them then suddenly as more simple, more fluid, more natural, as if we had found the text that goes with them. The "Wiegenlied" was in our plan from very early on, because Cédric and I share a love of paternity, and of our children – that's actually what bonded us as friends at the beginning more than music.
But I also had a feeling that between the two sonatas you need a little interlude, between the victorious F major to the completely calm and soothing E-flat major. We found the wonderful "Nachtigall", which could almost be a preview of the early Alban Berg. It's so strange, it's so from another world, and it's like having a piece of ginger between pieces of sushi: it helps to change your taste and get you ready for another flavour.
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