Fanfare Magazine Home Page

IssuesBook ReviewsCollectionsFeature ArticlesThe Hall of FameLabelsReviewersThe Want Lists

ComposersConductorsEnsembles and OrchestrasInstrumentalistsPerformersSingers

InstrumentsVocal RolesVoicesSACDsJazzSoundtracks Shows and PopVideo


Review by Ken Meltzer, Interview by Myron Silberstein

BRAHMS Violin Sonatas Nos. 1–3 Johannes Leertouwer (vn); Julian Reynolds (pn) CHALLENGE 72964 (SACD: 71:02)

This recording of the complete Brahms Sonatas for Violin and Piano was made in January 2023. The following week, violinist Leertouwer defended his dissertation at Leiden University. Leertouwer’s chosen area of study was “historically informed performance practice of Brahms’s orchestra music.” During his Ph.D. studies, Leertouwer “found that I longed for the experience of applying what I had discovered as a violinist to find out how it had changed my approach to Brahms’s chamber music.” Leertouwer contacted pianist Julian Reynolds “and asked if he would be willing to experiment with my findings.” In the 1990s, Leertouwer and Reynolds made recordings for the Globe label of the complete Beethoven, Schubert, and Schumann violin sonatas (all reviewed in various issues of Fanfare). In their new Brahms cycle, issued by Challenge Classics, Leertouwer and Reynolds once again employ HIP practices. Julian Reynolds plays an 1857 straight-strung Blüthner grand piano that, according to Leertouwer, “shares many characteristics with” the Viennese J. B. Streicher instrument that Brahms played at home. The duo also adopts “the 19th-century expressive tools of flexibility of rhythm and tempo, of expressive legato, portamento and vibrato that have been largely forgotten or perhaps discarded over the course of the last century.” In this context, portamento is viewed “as the first and most important means of expression for string players.” Vibrato is employed as “an ornament,” rather than a foundational sonic component.

Much to Leertouwer’s credit, he does not argue that these Brahms recordings are in any way a definitive HIP realization of the music. As Leertouwer acknowledges in his engaging liner notes, disagreements remain over how various HIP techniques were applied in Brahms’s day. For a more extensive discussion of such matters, Leertouwer’s research may be accessed online. I also recommend the book Performing Brahms: Early Evidence of Performance Style, edited by Michael Musgrave and Bernard D. Sherman (Cambridge University Press, 2003). Further, artists past and present (good ones at least) do not adhere to a single interpretation of a work. To quote Brahms, any “sane musician” would vary tempos from performance to performance. And to quote Leertouwer, “and next week it might be different again.” All that said, these performances of the Brahms Violin Sonatas manifest a distinctive sonic and interpretive profile. The Blüthner piano’s transparency, delicacy, and distinct voicing of registers all contrast with the cross-strung concert grand (an instrument that Brahms also played). Both Leertouwer’s spare use of vibrato and generous application of portamento will be striking to those accustomed to mainstream 20th- and 21st-century renditions. With regard to choices of tempo and phrasing, there is no denying that the artists adopt a varied and elastic approach. But the intimate nature of a violin-piano duo (as opposed to, say, orchestral repertoire) lends itself to the potential for greater flexibility. So while I admire the artists’ freedom in this regard, it doesn’t strike me as a conspicuous departure from the norm.

The worth of performances should not be based on adherence to scholarly doctrine, but to the musicality the artists bring to the scores. And in these Brahms recordings, Leertouwer and Reynolds play with arresting sensitivity and beauty. In the three Violin Sonatas (with the exception of the last movement of the op. 108), Brahms embodies an introspective and lyrical approach. Leertouwer and Reynolds savor the beauties of these works in their elegant phrasing, hushed dynamics, and a willingness to linger over passages, but in a manner that does not impede the onward progression. I must also mention that in that finale of the op. 108, Leertouwer and Reynolds convey all the requisite Sturm und Drang. The cohesion both of artistic vision and technical execution is exemplary throughout. The performances are reproduced in an appropriately lovely, intimate acoustic. These are enriching and thought-provoking explorations of some of Brahms’s most endearing chamber music. Recommended. Ken Meltzer


Johannes Leertouwer on Historically Informed Brahms Performance
By Myron Silberstein

Johannes Leertouwer is a violinist, conductor, and research scholar with a focus on Brahms performance traditions. He shared his insights into Brahms and into the contemporary performer’s role in bringing these traditions to current-day audiences.

So often, the terms “historically informed performance” and “period instruments” suggest composers from the earliest music up through Beethoven. But of course, there is great interest in performing composers from the late 19th century, and even as late as Ravel, on the instruments those composers would have known. Could you share a bit about the 1857 Blüthner that Julian Reynolds used on your recording? How does it differ in construction, feel, and tone from, say, a Steinway D? How close is it to the J. B. Streicher that Brahms used?

The Blüthner is a straight-strung piano. This means that each string has its own space to resonate. In later, cross-strung instruments, every string that is struck by the player transfers some of its vibrations to the strings that cross its path. This has the advantage of increasing roundness of sound, and it creates a kind of acoustic space. But it also makes for more evenness of sound through the registers, and it certainly creates a sound that is less transparent.

How interesting that you speak of evenness of sound as a disadvantage! I know that it’s something that pianists often strive for in their technique. But I understand how complete evenness of sound might come at the expense of highlighting the unique qualities of each register. How would you describe the registers on a straight-strung piano?

I find it extremely inspiring to work with straight-strung historical pianos. As a string player, it sometimes feels as if there is a whole string quartet in there—the bass lines played by a cellist and the descant by fellow fiddlers, or sometimes an oboe or flute! I just love all these colors and I believe that the composer did so too.

I think of all music-making as storytelling. For people who want to tell an engaging or dramatic story, evenness of sound cannot be a goal for their voice, except for specific sections or elements in the story they want to tell. Evenness of sound can be very comforting and reassuring, for example. But there are so many other emotions embedded in the music. Many of these emotions are better served or brought out by other sounds and colors. To me, variety of sound and color is necessary for telling a dramatic story.

From an early age, I was struck and inspired by the colors that historical instruments offer. As a teenager, I refused to play duos with grand pianos. I found their appearance intimidating and their sound to be an abstract polished perfection (much like their black polished surfaces). I could not find a way to create a balanced relation with my efforts—admittedly quite feeble at the time—to produce an expressive sound on my violin. My opinion lacked any solid basis; it was my intuition that led me to believe that there should be other possibilities. Much later, I found these possibilities when I discovered the world of the historical straight-strung pianos and gut-strung string instruments. My gut E-string can sound very thin and silvery. The upper register of the Blüthner, similarly, can sound very light and transparent. This allows the performer to establish a contrast between these sounds and colors and a warm, soothing bass—along with other colors in the middle. These contrasts make the sound less predictable, and they can help us understand as performers that we don’t need to reduce the music to a beautiful-sounding phenomenon but can use a wide variety of sounds and colors (even harsh ones) to create a compelling narrative.

Your violin is a 1619 Amati. How has the development of the violin compared to the development of the piano? Why do violinists prize instruments that are several centuries old, even when performing music composed in the past hundred years, whereas pianists often seek out newer instruments?

I sometimes jokingly say that if I had shown up with my Amati for a rehearsal in 1880, or even at the beginning of the 19th century, colleagues might have said: “Here he is again with his ancient fiddle! Why don’t you go and get yourself a fresh one?”

But the reality is that it is the most beautiful violin I have. It is built, like all pre-Guarneri and Stradivari violins, for resonance more than for projection. It has an intimate sound, and it speaks to me. Similarly to the Blüthner, it favors color over power. Its strings have characteristics like the voices of a choir: E-string soprano, A-string alto, D-string tenor, and G-string bass. These color differences are enhanced by my use of gut strings: pure gut for E and A and wound gut for D and G. My violin inspires and challenges me. Nothing can be achieved with force; I always have to ask nicely, as it were. And since the dynamic range of the instrument is much smaller, I always have to consider character before sheer volume. I also feel I must bring out the piano and pianissimo very carefully because I don’t really have a triple forte on the other end of the range.

How does an actual 1857 Blüthner compare to, say, a contemporary construction based on its blueprint? If Brahms had heard the original instrument, it would have been at most a few decades old at the time; would the past 150 years or so have affected the sound of the instrument at all?

The Büthner is in very good condition. I prefer instruments that have not been restored too much. We have no way of knowing if the makers of my Amati or the Blüthner would recognize their sound today. It is entirely possible that they would say, “O dear, let me quickly make you a new one because this one is spent!” It is also possible that what we love about old instruments today is exactly what their makers would have thought of as the unfortunate effects of old age!

This is fascinating, and goes along with what you write in your program notes about the futility of trying to create a precisely authentic historical performance in a contemporary context. I’m curious: Do you know of any letters or other documents Brahms or his contemporaries wrote describing their instruments, or specifying qualities they were looking for in an instrument?

Brahms played and appreciated a wide variety of instruments, including Steinway and Bechstein, but he kept a straight-strung Viennese action piano with leather-covered hammerheads, made by Emil Streicher, in his apartment in Vienna until his death in 1897. He recommended this type of instrument to many friends and colleagues.

Your program notes make the important point that historically informed performance is not simply a matter of using older instruments; there is also an approach to rubato and phrasing that Brahms would have had in his ears, which contemporary audiences might not be familiar with. Could you share the fundamental differences between a historically informed performance of Brahms and a wholly contemporary performance?

For a long time now, scholars and experts such as Professor Clive Brown, who has spent most of his life studying historical performance practice and writing about it, have lamented the fact that very few performances today reflect what we know about the way this music was performed in the past. With my doctoral research on Brahms’s symphonies and concertos, I have tried to contribute by working with 19th-century tools that have been largely discarded or forgotten in the 20th century, namely flexibility of rhythm and tempo, abundant use of portamento, and limited use of vibrato. Lately, more and more research-based performances and recordings of 19th-century repertoire are seeing the light of day. I hope that my recording of the sonatas can join these in broadening the scope of expressive tools that are considered permissible in performance, as it seems to me that today’s ever-tighter rules for appropriate performance can put performers in a straitjacket.

To speak personally, when I was a young pianist, I was encouraged to listen to recordings from the 1920s precisely because of their lavish rubato and wide dynamic range—and for interpretations that favored capturing the passion of the music even if at the expense of note-perfect accuracy. I came to think of these qualities simply as “great piano playing” rather than “historical piano playing,” and I saw more rule-bound playing as an anomaly. I’m sorry you’ve found it to be the standard now. What can be done to move mainstream performers more toward an interest in interpretative flexibility?

Walter Blume, in his invaluable Brahms in der Meininger Tradition, laments the fact that we have no recordings of 19th-century performances. He writes that hearing the way music was performed in the 19th century would have made clear, in a way that words and ratios cannot, that music making came from a different place, from a different state of consciousness (Bewustseinshaltungen), and reflected a different worldview. But early 20th-century recordings can really help us understand how different the music-making of the 19th century must have been, as these recordings reflect some of it. I’ll name just two recordings that changed my understanding of Romantic music profoundly. The piano rolls of pianist and conductor Carl Reinecke, particularly of his Mozart playing, made clear to me that things I had previously believed to be at odds with a historically informed approach to the music of the Classical era, such as wild freedom of rhythm and tempo, extreme arpeggiation of almost every chord, and dislocation of melody in relation to the bass or the accompaniment, were an essential part of the performance style of one of the greatest 19th-century authorities in historically informed Mozart playing. The fact that students both from early music departments and from the mainstream curriculum find these piano rolls equally shocking demonstrates how profoundly the 19th-century tools of expression have been rejected in the 20th century. Another great example is the interview (with musical demonstrations) by Ilona Eibenschütz, a pianist who knew Brahms well. Her sound, her control over registers, her separation of melody and accompaniment, and, most of all, her fluent and continual rubato, simply knocked me over. So did her opening sentence in the interview: “When I was 13 years old, I came from Vienna, my home, to Frankfurt, to study with Clara Schumann.” All this can be found on YouTube, and I use it to demonstrate to my students in Seoul and Amsterdam that there are legitimate reasons to explore those discarded expressive tools that historical recordings hand down to us, even if they are considered controversial today.

You made this recording as you were completing your dissertation. Could you share a bit about your dissertation? How did it inform your work as you prepared the recording?

I had in fact just completed my dissertation and I was preparing for my public defense of it at Leiden University when I made this recording. I do my research in a playful manner, and I play and conduct in an investigative manner. The playing and conducting don’t come after my research; they are a part of it. This is an ongoing process; our ideas about how best to perform the music of the past are continuously changing. Arguably, this process of change is what keeps our relationship with the music of the past alive.

Making experimental recordings with my project orchestra in the context of my dissertation research (available on showed me a way to use historical information to come to a result that is at the same time completely different from other performances today and demonstrably rooted in historical performance practices. It was my enthusiasm about the orchestral recording, the lack of funding to continue with a 19th-century orchestra, and my love of chamber music that prompted me to record the sonatas in the spirit of my dissertation and my work with the project orchestra.

Could you say more about the two approaches you use in your work: play and investigation?

Given the fact that it is impossible to recreate a historical truth or reality, engaging with historical information must have a different purpose. I believe that in the current artistic climate, in which a narrow definition of “proper” performance has become dominant internationally, historical research can be used not only to examine the foundations of that definition critically, but also to pave the way for alternative modes of performing. My way of doing this is to study the historical sources carefully through the lens of a performer, and to engage with my findings through experimentation. Historical recordings may offer us relatively direct examples of possible ways of performing, but when it comes to written sources I need to try out personally what the consequences of them may be in performance even to begin to understand what specific meaning they might have. Hearing and sensing what the expressive possibilities of such things as modification of rhythm and tempo, extensive portamento, and limited vibrato can entail is a prerequisite for my understanding what these concepts are. This is what I mean when I speak of playful research and investigative playing.

You have enjoyed a longstanding collaboration and friendship with Julian Reynolds. Could you share a bit about the history of your partnership? How has it developed over the years?

Julian and I met in the European Community Youth Orchestra in the 1980s when Claudio Abbado was its chief conductor. The work with Claudio and many other great conductors was a huge influence on both of us. We later both studied in Vienna around the same time and played together in many lessons with my teacher, Josef Suk (1929–2011), the great Czech violinist and son of the composer with the same name. Julian went on to become an opera conductor; I became a concertmaster of mostly period instrument orchestras and started teaching at the conservatory of Amsterdam. But we kept playing together. We made records for the Dutch label Globe Records, and we kept playing together also during times when our careers were taking us in very different directions. As Julian once said, “It keeps our hands on our instruments and our feet on the ground.”

You are a conductor as well as a violinist. Does your work as a conductor influence your approach to violin performance? How so?

My conducting came from my role as concertmaster and from leading from the first violin. Particularly when it comes to the performance of music of the Baroque era (regarding which we know that it was never conducted during the Baroque period the way performances are conducted today), I find it odd that some are claiming to present historically informed performances without questioning the way in which these performances are led. Whenever possible, I lead from the violin. In this way I “conduct” annual performances of Messiah and the St. Matthew Passion with my period instrument orchestra based in the Dutch city of Utrecht. On other occasions, I really enjoy standing on the rostrum and conducting symphonies and other 19th- and 20th-century repertoire.

Could you say a few words about how leading from the violin differs from baton conducting?

In my experience, leading from the violin creates a different dynamic in rehearsals and performance than conducting with a baton or with the hands. Even when I conduct without playing, I try to do so as a primus inter pares, as a first among equals. That is the kind of musical leadership I always enjoyed most when I was still an orchestral player. But when I play and everyone in the group can hear how I shape the music, the communication is more direct and the idea of being first among equals is self-explanatory. It would be impossible for me to say which I enjoy more; I feel privileged to be able to choose according to the project or the repertoire which role I take on.

What projects do you have on the horizon?

I am currently recording all the Beethoven string quartets on period instruments with our Narratio Quartet. My colleagues and I are working with many of the ideas developed in my Brahms research.

The recordings will be made by Bert van der Wolf and Turtle Records and released by Challenge Records in the upcoming years. I believe it will be one of the first complete recordings on period instruments—and it will certainly be the first based on the ideas described above.

The final paragraph of your program notes really resonated with me: “Although we hope our playing has a clear and demonstrable connection with historical sources, we have no illusion or pretense that our recording might represent any kind of historical truth or authenticity.” You speak of your performances as “nothing more and nothing less than our personal and essentially 21st-century way of using historical information as a source of inspiration in performance.” Could you say more about how contemporary performers can best assimilate their knowledge about historical performance practices? There is such a wealth of information at our disposal, yet we can’t go back in time; our next performance is always in the future. How do we reconcile our present-day context with our historical knowledge?

I believe that historical information can serve to free performers from misguided conceptions of correct performance. The restrictions that characterize today’s mainstream performance practice, misguided as they often are, appear to be dominant. One clear example is the so-called German style, which was so important for the performance of the works of Beethoven and Brahms according to their contemporaries. The main complaint from the people who had mastered this style of performance is that people who did not understand this style limited themselves to what was printed on the page. Thus, they failed to rise above the level of “correct performance” to reach the level of “beautiful performance.”

Spohr is very explicit in his Violin School: If the performance is limited to a faithful reproduction of the instructions in print, including notes, signs, and characterizations in words (Kunstwörter), it is called correct performance. If the performer contributes something of his or her own to bring the music to life in a spirited way so that listeners may recognize the intentions of the composer and experience the emotions embedded in the music, this is called “beautiful” performance. (This is my own free translation of the German text.) Spohr goes on to list the tools that may be used to create a beautiful performance: 1) Refined handling of the bow, both regarding the character of tone—from strong and even raw to soft and whistling—and regarding phrasing. 2) Use of expressive fingerings, not to make the music more easily playable, but for tone and character. The sliding of fingers (portamento) and the use of different fingers for the same note are a part of this technique. 3) A nuanced use of vibrato (as Spohr explains elsewhere in his book, to be applied as an ornament and in four variants—slow; fast; from slow to fast; and from fast to slow—indicated by wavering lines on specific notes in his musical examples). 4) Acceleration of the tempo in fiery passages and slowing down in passages expressing tenderness or melancholy.

Another wonderful source when it comes to understanding the German style is Marion Ranken’s account of her experience as a student in the Joachim School in Berlin, in which she spends page after page describing nuances that cannot be found in print but were an integral part of expressive performance in the German style.

Whereas the literal approach disqualified performers in the past, the situation today is the opposite: Applying any of the expressive tools of the 19th century today will make it almost impossible to be successful at an entrance exam for a prestigious school, and it will seriously reduce any chances of success in (traditional) competitions. This constitutes a very regrettable waste of expressive opportunity. For the future, I think it is safe to say that a wide variety of approaches to the music of the past can greatly improve the chances that future generations will be able to relate to it.


Our Advertisers
About Fanfare / Contact Us
Advertise in the Fanfare Archive
Finding Titles of Musical Works


Reviews and interviews
Just click and read!