Brahms’s violin sonatas, in perspective at the Gardner Museum

10.07.14
Stefan Jackiw
Boston Globe

Violinist Stefan Jackiw paired with pianist Anna Polonsky for the recital. 

By Matthew Guerrieri

One advantage of programming an entire recital with a single composer is that it lessens the pressure to make any single piece a summary portrait. At the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum on Sunday, violinist Stefan Jackiw and pianist Anna Polonsky presented Johannes Brahms’s three violin sonatas as, in a way, views of the composer from three different angles.

The main division was between Brahms the classicist, loyal to traditional forms and reverent of past masters, and Brahms the romantic, stretching musical limits and brooding after the sublime. The A major Sonata No. 2 (Op. 100) was almost formally announced: the opening crisply delineated, decorously extroverted. The rest cast a decidedly rational air, Jackiw shaping phrases with calculated applications of vibrato, and Polonsky adopting a pearly, fortepiano-like tone, her articulations growing more dry as the volume increased. It called to mind classical-era analogues: its visual art’s clean edges and geometric perspective, or its theater’s formal rhetoric and symmetry.

The D minor Sonata No. 3 (Op. 108) is, on paper, the grander piece, but the performance was, much of the time, delicately meticulous. If Op. 100 was about clarity, this was about control, even vehement moments set in careful contrast with the lyricism. It suited the players — both Jackiw and Polonsky displayed exacting technique — but it was a tight leash. It was only in the final pages of the finale that the pair loosened the reins, injecting a sense of risk to match the precision.

The first sonata came last — the Op. 78, in G major — although, as Jackiw explained, it is a piece suffused with reminiscence and nostalgia, rueful and otherwise. Subtle changes resulted in a thoroughly more Romantic performance: more pedal from Polonsky and more vibrato from Jackiw, giving lines a warmer, softer outline, with soft sections not in coiled preparation for loud, but undulating in their own way and within their own space. Most of all, the pair seemed to not only be playing into each other’s ideas, but also more into each other’s sound, casting a glow around the music.

An afternoon of smart playing yielded a particularly smart encore: the first of Clara Schumann’s Three Romances (Op. 22), its polished lyricism poignantly smudged with ornaments. After bright spotlights on Brahms himself, the glimpse of his most trusted confidant was all the more affecting for being so brief.