Arabella Steinbacher / Robert Kulek

Brahms: Complete Works for Violin & Piano

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This album features two major artists, past and present: Johannes Brahms and Arabella Steinbacher. However, even the best of artists have their less than perfect moments or works. These three sonatas, as played hereby Steinbacher and Kulek, come across as less exciting, lesser works by Brahms. The Sonata No. 1 sounds rather anemic as it begins (partly because of the recording quality), but Steinbacher chooses to play without much fullness or vibrato, even though she is playing a Stradivarius. The music comes to a grand crescendo, but it simply does not feel robust enough for Brahms. The piano tends to overpower Steinbacher in the first movement. The second movement improves, for Steinbacher even plays into the string with some fire, contrasting that with a very quiet piano passage, but still there is not enough vibrato. The sonata concludes with a very fluid, sweet tone, but the lack of passion does not fully entice the listener. In Sonata No. 2, again, there is generally a lack of vibrato and vigor. The Allegro first movement generally does not sound like an allegro, though it picks up and becomes livelier through the piece. Same for the Vivace section of the second movement: it only becomes a bit vivace. The dialogue between the piano and violin in the final movement is interesting to listen to, and it ends grandly. One must be careful to note that Steinbacher always plays with very good technique, as does her pianist; it is simply her musical decisions that are not always engaging. Sonata No. 3 is a better work by Brahms, for it is a four-movement sonata that makes more use of the piano, which is active under the violin. Steinbacher comes alive, and it's a wonder why she didn't play with this energy on the other pieces. The Un poco presto e con sentiment shows off a grand Brahms, and Steinbacher sings out, but also contrasts it with tenderness. This sonata concludes with a Presto agitato, which is agitated indeed, for the beginning is simply incredible. The final work on the album is a Scherzo from Brahms' FAE Sonata, which is the most exciting piece on the album to hear. Steinbacher sounds like an entirely different violinist here, with such power and passion; her high notes sing and her technique is excellent. Clearly, this violinist is capable of so much musically that it is disappointing when one hears her playing at less than her full potential. One can only hope that she will be more artistically consistent with her energy in future recordings.

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