The small audience at the Blair School of Music’s Ingram Hall that braved Tuesday evening’s cold temperature was rewarded with a program combining great music with consummate musicianship. German violinist Isabelle Faust and Russian pianist Alexander Melnikov, both successful concert soloists in their own right, also concertize and record regularly as a duo. They have received high critical praise for their recording on Harmonia Mundi of Beethoven’s complete Sonatas for Piano and Violin (in the composer’s time, the piano was listed first).
For this concert they selected four of those Beethoven sonatas, and one would gladly have heard more of them. The program began with an early sonata, Op. 12, No. 3 in E-flat Major. The least well-known work on the program, it was a pleasure to hear it played so well. It took a moment to adjust to the volume of sound – Faust takes an intimate approach to the music and plays in a way that invites the listener in rather than in a way that demands attention by forcefulness. Louder passages have all the more impact for the soft passages having been truly soft. While she can play with bite when it is called for, her tone is generally sweet and clear rather than rich and throaty. Her artistry is such that you find yourself paying close attention to the simplest things, such as when she is merely providing accompanying figures to the piano. The piano part is quite virtuosic; it sounds rather more difficult than the five piano sonatas (of Op. 10 and Op. 14) that Beethoven wrote around the same time. While Melnikov can toss off fast scales and arpeggios with ease, he is also, like Faust, even more impressive when playing slowly, gently and vey softly.
The first half of the concert closed with the Everest of Beethoven’s violin sonatas, the ‘Kreutzer’ (No. 9 in A Major, Op. 47, nicknamed after its eventual dedicatee, who never actually performed it). Lasting well over a half hour, it tests both the technical and conceptual mettle of the performers. The slow introduction of the first movement begins with the violin alone, and Faust played the first four measures more sweetly than is often the case. It almost sounded as if it could have been from one of Bach’s solo violin works. But the calm soon ended as the Presto began. The movement is full of contrasts, even to the point of being a bit strange at times, and the duo gave a performance that was both intellectually compelling and emotionally exciting. The second movement is a wonderful set of variations in which the piano takes the lead role much of the time. Melnikov played his ornate part with seamless fluidity and Faust once again showed how to make art out of the simplest accompaniment. The last movement is a tarantella-like romp that brought the first half of the program to a thrilling conclusion.
The second half opened with the modestly-scaled Sonata No. 4 in A-minor, Op. 23. Less well-known than its sibling, the famous ‘Spring’ Sonata, Op. 24, the Op. 23 still has much to recommend it. In spite of the minor key, it can sometimes be humorous and playful. Where the minor-key passages in the ‘Kreutzer’ were a real tempest, those in the Op. 23 seem more of a tempest in a teapot. Faust’s stage presence is generally serious and stoic. Compared to many violinists her body movements and facial expressions are commendably unobtrusive. This sonata, though, might have benefitted from an occasional smile. As always, her command of various tone colors was exquisite, including, at a point in the first movement, a veiled quality that made it sound as if she were using a mute.
The final work on the program was Beethoven’s last violin sonata, the Op. 96 in G-major. Overall, it is more often lyrical than dramatic; at times it seems to presage Schubert, and the slow second movement sounds like a precursor of Mendelssohn’s Songs without Words. While not as bravura as the ending of the ‘Kreutzer’ Sonata, its final few Presto measures brought the printed program to a satisfying conclusion. The encore was a Nocturne by John Cage, which might seem like an odd choice, but its quiet weirdness, although worlds away from Beethoven, was enchanting in its own way. Faust and Melnikov received a standing ovation, an occurrence so common in Nashville at performances that are merely good that it can’t adequately convey an appreciation for something extraordinary. To hear Isabelle Faust play, and to watch her effortless technique, was a rare treat.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this review incorrectly named Faust and Melnikov’s label. It is Harmonia Mundi.