Violinist Isabelle Faust and Pianist Alexander Melnikov gave a charming and clean, if occasionally restrained, performance of Beethoven sonatas on Friday night at Mandel Hall at the University of Chicago in Hyde Park. The German Faust has been partnering with the Russian Melnikov for 15 years. Among their many accomplishments is the 2010 Grammy-nominated recording of Beethoven’s ten sonatas for piano and violin. In their Chicago recital debut on Friday night, Faust and Melnikov performed three of these sonatas, demonstrating marvelous ensemble playing and precise adherence to the score. While it ended superbly, in the early going they seemed to be holding something back.
Part of the challenge was the material. While Beethoven left an indelible imprint on symphonies, string quartets, piano sonatas, and other musical combinations, his violin sonatas were less impactful. All but one of them are from his early period where he experimented, sometimes unsuccessfully, within the musical forms established by Haydn and Mozart. While there are several examples of brilliance in early Beethoven, the violin sonatas are unreliable.
To open the concert Faust and Melnikov performed two works from 1802. The first, Sonata No. 4 in a-minor, Op. 23, starts with a fast paced movement that is pleasing enough. While Faust and Melnikov brought out the many quiet and loud contrasts and displayed moments of passion, they didn’t produce the drama that can be gotten from this music. However, I applaud them for honoring all of Beethoven’s repeats, including the second half, which few ensembles bother to repeat.
In the next movement Beethoven substitutes a playful scherzo for the traditional dance-like minuet. In most scherzos Beethoven speeds things up, but here he slows it down with a tune that is not particularly interesting. Faust and Melnikov made the best of it, with note-perfect playing and careful adherence to changes in dynamics, but they could not prevent the lagging that often results from a dull score. (Make no mistake, however; it is always worth hearing Beethoven, even when he’s not at his best.)
The a-minor sonata’s high point is the finale, which flies at the listener right from the beginning, where Melnikov deftly played the melody and infill, equaled by Faust when she took up the theme. While the ensemble playing was tight, Faust and Melnikov could have played with a bit more fire.
They were much better on the next work, the Sonata in F-major, Op. 24, the so-called Spring sonata. This work shows off the subtle, charming side of Beethoven, as opposed to the dramatic version exhibited in the a-minor sonata. In the opening, Faust beautifully bowed through the lengthy and sweet melody that underpins this movement, as Melnikov delicately backed her up. Their musical precision was evident while passing long runs between themselves with each note played evenly and clearly.
The finale offers the catchiest tune of the concert’s first half, and Faust and Melnikov performed it wonderfully. One instrument plays the main melody, which briefly rises but ends on a quick descent, while the other supports with two adjacent notes going back and forth. Whether playing the main melody or the backing, Faust and Melnikov captured the essential interplay between these musical forces with memorable effect.
The second half of the concert demonstrated the difference ten years can make. It featured the Sonata No. 10 in G-major, Op. 96, the only violin sonata Beethoven wrote after his early period. A couple of years after the sonatas in the first half of the concert, Beethoven profoundly changed just about everything in music. Relevant to this sonata is his use of musical episodes to construct a movement instead of the traditional primary and secondary themes, which can be very limiting. When Beethoven wrote this piece in 1812, his music was beginning to change yet again, this time to the more ethereal sounds characteristic of his late period. These new styles and approaches resulted in music that is far more compelling than the earlier works on Friday night’s program.
Like the Spring Sonata, Beethoven shows off his charming side, with the overall effect being light and airy, balanced with brief moments of tension. Unlike the Spring, which begins with a lengthy melody, this sonata starts with the violin playing a simple motif comprised of a trill and three additional notes, echoed by the piano. After a few permutations, a longer melody emerges, followed by another, and yet another. It is hard to say what the primary and secondary themes are because the movement has several distinct, yet related tunes.
Faust and Melnikov marvelously captured the feelings and tensions, playing off each other seamlessly. Melnikov was especially effective during those passages when his right hand played running thirds while his left hand moved in the opposite direction, dong so with utmost smoothness, allowing each note to be clearly heard.
The slow movement presages Beethoven’s late period with a dreamy melody played by Melnikov that could easily have come out of the piano sonatas to be written several years later. It segues into a compelling, minor-keyed scherzo noteworthy for its lovely, succulent middle section in a related, major key. The part writing for these two, contrasting movements shows Beethoven’s maturity in creating interesting things for both the leading and backing instruments to do. This played well into Faust and Melniklov’s ensemble cohesion.
The finale is a moderately paced set of variations on a very simple theme that seems to go through the usual motions but soon enters a lengthy, drawn-out passage that recalls the dreamy slow movement. While the faster pace is eventually restored, the tempo frequently shifts as anticipation builds until it all ends spectacularly at breakneck speeds. Faust and Melnikov reproduced the excitement with bravado and flourish, capturing everything the music had to offer.
After a rousing applause, Faust and Melnikov offered an equally rousing encore, the finale of Beethoven’s Sonata No. 8 in G-major Op. 30 no. 3. It was a satisfying way to end an evening that, while not starting great, certainly ended that way.
This concert was part of UChicago Presents, a series of classical and jazz concerts in Hyde Park. Up next is their season’s first contemporary music concert, Interplay, where the Talea Ensemble and baritone Michael Weyandt will be performing the music of John Cage, Mauricio Kegal, and others at the Logan Center, December 2, 2016, 7:30 pm.