The Brahms Violin Sonatas Impressively Done by Faust and Melnikov

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Albert Dietrich, Schumann, Brahms Isabelle Faust (violin), Alexander Melnikov (piano), Wigmore Hall, London 12.6.2015. (RB)

Albert Dietrich/Schumann/Brahms – Sonata in A Minor (‘F.A.E.’) (1853)

Brahms -Violin Sonata No. 1 in G op 78; Violin Sonata No. 2 in A Op 78; Violin Sonata No. 3 in D Minor Op 108

Isabelle Faust and Alexander Melnikov are regular chamber music partners and they have recorded a number of CDs together featuring music by Beethoven, Schubert and Schumann. Faust has won particular acclaim for her recording of the Beethoven and Berg Violin Concertos under the baton of Claudio Abbado while Melnikov has won awards for his performance of Shostakovich’s Preludes and Fugues. Faust was playing on her trademark ‘Sleeping Beauty’ Stradivarius. The concert comprised all the Brahms sonatas for violin and piano and opened with the unusual ‘FAE’ Sonata which was jointly composed by Schumann, Brahms and Schumann’s pupil, Albert Dietrich.

‘ FAE’ was an acronym for Joachim’s personal motto – frei aber einsam (‘free but lonely’) – and the sonata was presented to him when he arrived at the Düsseldorf household of the Schumanns in October 1853. Dietrich composed the opening Allegro , Schumann the Intermezzo and Finale and Brahms the Scherzo. It is a somewhat uneven work but given that three of the movements were composed by Schumann and Brahms there is considerable merit in the piece. Dietrich’s opening Allegro is the weakest of the four movements and, while Faust and Melnikov gave a committed performance with scrupulous attention to detail, I did not feel there was a strong emotional connection to the music. Schumann’s second movement Intermezzo was better with Faust producing a sweet-toned, lyrical line from her Stradivarius and Melnikov giving us a rippling accompaniment and conjuring up elements of fantasy in the piano part. Brahms’ C minor Scherzo is the strongest of the four movements and it is the only movement Joachim performed in public. Both performers played the work with depth and power and made effective use of the composer’s recurring rhythmic motif. Faust gave us some rhapsodic playing in Schumann’s Finale while the decorative writing was exquisitely executed by Melnikov. The movement became increasingly animated and ecstatic while the flamboyant coda was delivered by both players with aplomb. Faust and Melnikov made a very strong case for the work although it is remains a curious piece.

From the ‘FAE’ Sonata we moved to the first of the Brahms Violin Sonatas which was written between 1878 and 1879 when the composer was also working on the Violin Concerto. Both this sonata and the subsequent work in A major are supremely lyrical creations and Brahms quotes a number of songs in the G major, including Regenlied . Faust gave us purity of tone and perfect intonation in the opening movement: the gorgeous opening melody was played in a very clean and slightly understated way before she opened up the sound as the melody takes wing. Faust conveyed a very strong sense of line and structure and the phrases were beautifully nuanced and shaded although occasionally I would have liked her to make the music sing a little more. Melnikov brought rich vibrant colours to the piano part and beautifully layered textures and I particularly enjoyed the section where the piano plays the melody against pizzicato strings. Melnikov produced wonderful rich and deep sonorities in the opening section of the slow movement while Faust brought a sense of Autumnal yearning and melancholy to the double stopping at the end of the movement. The finale was a little on the slow side but Faust’s control of the long overarching phrases was superb and I liked Melnikov’s shaping of the semiquaver accompaniment. Faust’s handling of the final section where the music modulates to the major was magical, conjuring up the final glow of a sunset.

The A major Violin Sonata was written more than 10 years after the First but it also quotes a number of songs. Faust and Melnikov adopted a nice flowing tempo in the opening movement and the poetry and lyricism of the material shone through. I particularly enjoyed Melnikov’s handling of the beautiful second subject which was played with a lush Romantic colouring. I would have liked a little more heft and fullness of tone from Faust in the opening section although this came to the fore in the development section in a very striking and effective way. The slow sections of the second movement were tastefully executed but a little too introspective and subdued for my taste – here the music really needs to be heartfelt. The vivace sections were better with both players bringing out the dancing lightness and charm of the music. The tempo for the finale was perfectly judged and both players allowed the music to develop in an organic and unified way. Both players collaborated closely to produce a range of inventive textures and sonorities which helped to keep the recurring Rondo melody continually alive and arresting.

The D minor Sonata was written shortly after the A major but it is a much darker and stormier work than its predecessors. Unlike the earlier sonatas it is in four movements rather than three. Faust and Melnikov were both at their best in this sonata and it was for me the performance of the evening. Both performers gave us thrilling dramatic contrasts and high voltage playing in the first movement. The second subject in the major key was full of passion and rapture and Faust was particularly impressive in the way she allowed the violin line to soar. The slow movement had a sombre nobility with both performers bringing weight and profundity to the music. The exchanges between both performers were tightly co-ordinated throughout the scherzo third movement and I was particularly impressed with Melnikov’s light and deft handling of the elfin passage-work. Faust and Melnikov gave us a very charged and turbulent account of the finale and they used the tarantella rhythms to great effect to keep the music surging along.

Overall, this was an extremely well executed recital in which both performers demonstrated exceptionally high levels of thoughtful musicianship. Faust and Melnikov performed a Romance by Schumann as an encore.

Robert Beattie

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