Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART. Sonatas for fortepiano and violin (K. 306, 304, 526)—Isabelle Faust/ Alexander Melnikov—Harmonia Mundi 

by | Apr 4, 2019 | Classical CD Reviews | 0 comments

Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART. Sonatas for fortepiano and violin (K. 306, 304, 526)—Isabelle Faust (violin) and Alexander Melnikov (fortepiano)—Harmonia Mundi HMM 902360—66:00 [Distr. by PIAS] *****:

The liner notes of this album remind us that Mozart’s early renown as a child-composer and prodigy was attached to his writing of a piece for harpsichord and violin. The early work raised significant interest in his promise, but when it came time to publish his “first opus” in Paris of six violin sonatas—three of which appear in this first volume by Isabelle Faust and Alexander Melnikov—the interest in the format or Mozart’s abilities with violin and keyboard did not provide him the same personal reward.

Of course, this is good music.

I had the opportunity to review earlier the recording of Mozart’s more complete set of violin and piano sonatas by Tomas Cotik and Tao Lin. My memory of that recording was that the pieces were technically very solid and were chock-full of dynamic interest. The most obvious difference with this new recording is the use of period instruments. Faust uses a borrowed Strad and Melnikov performs on a piano, copied from Anton Walter from 1795.

The engineers with Harmonia Mundi earn my respect with a superior sounding recording. The acoustic from this studio recording seems more appropriate for this music, there is more transparency to the sound, allowing us to feel closer to the musicians. While reverb is present, the overall presentation is drier and more intimate. And in turn, this album allows us to hear more of the timbral qualities of both instruments while appreciating an even more stark contrast between shifts in dynamics. This album is available in CD format and also digitally in higher resolution format at 24 bit, 96kHz. I auditioned both formats using an AudioQuest Dragonfly Red into headphones at their native resolutions. Both formats sounded great.

The first sonata, No. 23 in D, sparkles in its opening. The tight attack of a fortepiano helps with this effect. The sonata is a three-movement work, with the opening abundantly oozing with Mozart’s sunny personality.  The start of the work commands with the piano, with the violin playing along. The violin line then comes apart from the more mechanical piano to unwind into a melodic fantasy. The two parts work splendidly apart, each commanding our attention with their own unique parts that fit together. And throughout, they play cat and mouse, with the violin bowing down to the piano’s lead until it arrests our attention again. The balance between both players is ideally captured in the recording. Comparing this piece with Riccardo Minasi’s recording from 2016 (Deustche Harmonia Mundi) with Maxim Emelyanychev, I found the balance uneven, with all the weight favored to the piano.

Faust shows her deft ability with balance in the sonata’s third movement, where she hides behind the piano, only to emerge later in front of the sound. This is certainly about dynamic control, but Faust also seems to control timbre to play in tandem with the piano in a way that is unusually satisfying.

Portrait of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

Wolfgang Amadeua Mozart

The second sonata (No. 21 in e-minor), Mozart’s only minor-moded work from his initial collection of violin sonatas, marries a significantly complex first Allegro with a slower Tempo di Menuetto. Mozart’s trademark ability to marry disparate musical ideas between the parts then join the two players together in rhythmic unity is at work in this most delicious movement. The piece almost falls apart in the middle; the thought I had was paper that was wearing too thin, letting light through. Mozart brings us back first through a change in the major mode. An opening statement by the piano is followed by a second phrase joined by violin. During this portion of the sonata, Melnikov too shows his ability to alter the timbre of his instrument to an almost muted quality, achieved only by (careful) touch.

The final sonata, No. 35 in A, is once again presented in three movements. The duo here is splendidly locked in rhythmic step despite sometimes exploring dynamic extremes in opposite directions. The sonata’s Andante is interesting in how Mozart locks the violin together with the violin’s left hand, allowing the pianist to have “some fun” over the other two voices. What might be unusual to those already familiar with these works is the lack of the romantically-derived vibrato in the violin line. Faust does vibrate in spots across these sonatas, but what is refreshingly gone is that constant vibration that had not yet become the norm during Mozart’s time. Somewhat similar, Melnikov uses moments in this middle movement to play in a very regular, measured fashion that harks to the mono-dynamic quality of the harpsichord. When both players break out—with dynamic intensity in the piano and a change in color with the violin, including the use of vibration, the results are fascinating.

Mozart has written the  Presto to allow the piano a dominant role. The violinist is forced, almost to follow, playing catch-up.  Within the movement’s development section the violin finally emerges to command the melody, stealing the piano’s ownership of the piece’s energy. Altogether, however, the movement is skewed in favor of the piano and again, the balance among the players is maintained smartly, allowing the piano to shine. Faust pushes the dynamics and achieves a somewhat more overt timbre from the instrument near the sonata’s end, as if to remind us of this push-and-pull that Mozart so exquisitely crafts in his writing for these two instruments.

I very much enjoyed this album and would consider it, at least in its first volume, a new reference for Mozart’s sonatas for violin and piano.

— Sebastian Herrera


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