BEETHOVEN: Violin Sonatas (complete) – Isabelle Faust, violin/ Alexander Melnikov, piano – Harmonia mundi 902025.27 (3 CDs + 1 CD/DVD DualDisc), 218:00 *****:
When I heard the first few bars of the First Sonata I was a little put off; Faust uses as a basis for this recording a basically vibratoless tone, like a painter would a blank canvass. But then, after getting further into the movement, I realized that she was on to something. This is far from a no-vibrato program; in fact there is more vibrato than its absence. But unlike the relatively recent collection of the Ten by Anne-Sophie Mutter, whose indiscriminate and rather capricious selection of when to bend notes, dry them out, infuse fat vibrato, or produce eerily creepy open string sounds seems completely arbitrary and non-selective, Faust has an intelligence and very considered approach to these works.
The first four (maybe five) sonatas are as Beethoven indicated: sonatas for piano and violin. This is often overlooked in many performances, and Faust considerately relegates many of the violin strands to the background so to let Mr. Melnikov take the fore. This produces what in effect sounds to me like a new sonata. We are so used to hearing these pieces played with the virtuoso heft of a major artist that all of the piano work is subordinated. Faust and Melnikov are having none of it. Their mission is to present these pieces as Beethoven conceived them—and this is a far cry from playing them without any interpretative nuance at all—and the results are often stunning. When we get to the Spring Sonata (No. 5) there is perhaps a change in temperament; the violin, from the very outset, gives us a melody that almost cries out for a change in perspective. From this point on the stringed instrument will be in the accession, though Beethoven never completely relinquishes the importance of the piano.
The gossamer meanderings that we hear in the last sonata are played with a delicacy and almost impressionistic virtue that so often presents itself in Beethoven’s late quartets. These pieces are not from that time period, but it is interesting to hear what he was doing on the violin at this point, and how that might have affected his later string writing. I can’t recall a lovelier performance of this work, even Francescatti’s, a long time favorite. Though I would in general call this a more classically-oriented set of performances, this duo also has the goods to let the sparks fly, as we can easily hear in the great Kreutzer Sonata. This is a powerfully passionate reading of great febrile intensity marked by the incomparable ability of both players to balance the often difficult lower piano part with the violin. As the notes indicate, Beethoven’s piano was different than the overwhelming strength of the modern grand, but pianist Melnikov has a wonderfully adept way at playing beautiful pianissimos and crystal clear staccatos in the lower register.
I still recommend the aforementioned Mutter despite my comments because of the sheer musicality and beauty of her playing. For a modern generalized set of these sonatas one can do no better that seek out the RCA Zukerman/Neikrug recording. But this one has many revelations and is played to absolute perfection. I can’t imagine, having heard it, being without it, and the sound is state of the art.
We are given a bonus DualDisc about the making of this recording (the flip side being a CD of the Ninth Sonata) that will prove interesting to most. [Hmm…I thought the industry had given up on the actual DualDisc format…Ed.] I am not sure about Harmonia mundi’s packaging of this set. It folds out into four CD containers cross-wise, with the booklet being glued into the middle, which makes it difficult to read while trying to manage the flying leaflets. They might want to rethink that one. Otherwise, this is an excellent set.
— Steven Ritter