A Most Imaginatively Programmed Recital from Faust and Melnikov

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Szymanowski, Fauré, Françaix, Antheil: Isabelle Faust (violin), Alexander Melnikov (piano), Wigmore Hall, London, 19.2.2017. (GD)

Szymanowski – Myths Op.30

Fauré – Violin Sonata No.1 in A Op.13; Violin Sonata No. 2 in E minor Op. 108

Françaix – Sonatine

Anthiel – Sonata No.2 for violin, piano and drums

This was a most imaginatively programmed recital. Amazingly, works of the highest musical distinction like the two Fauré Sonatas and ‘Myths’ by Szymanowski’s are still rarely performed. The two main Fauré works formed the centre of the recital and radiated a French connection in the remaining works. And although Szymanowski and Anthiel were not French by birth they both were much influenced by the vibrant artistic scene in the Paris of the 1920’s. This is notable very much in Szymanowski’s ‘Myths’, Although it retains its very distinctive sound and style. The first myth ‘The Fountain of Arethusa’ has a running water theme which is reproduced in the piano arpeggios. Actually the piece derives from Ravel’s ‘Jeux d’eau’. Narcissus is thought to derive from a Dionyisiac projection of desire from the work of Nietzsche. It thematises both the composer’s feeling for the German philosopher, and his own homosexual desire, equated with narcissism in the more positive sense of the self-becoming and ‘overcoming’. The last myth features the play of wood nymphs and their celestial dancing rhythms. Throughout ‘Myths’ Szymanowski deploys all manner of violin techniques; cutting tremolandos, harmonic declensions and double-stopping glissandi. I can’t agree with the programme note writer’s claim that ‘Myths’ surpasses both Debussy and Ravel in violin/piano innovation, but Szymanowski here is certainly the equal of the two French masters. It almost goes without saying that Faust and Melnikov delivered ‘Myths’ with a total empathy for the Polish composer’s innovative style.

Fauré’s Violin Sonata No.1 Op.15 dates from 1875. It was much admired by Charles Koechlin who was impressed by the ‘vehement’ passion of the opening Allegro, with its ‘treatment of tonality’; the Scherzo, so ‘daring’ for its time’, the ‘maturity and warmth’ of the ‘Andante’ and the ‘rhythmic vigour’ of the finale. And indeed Faure at the age of 30 had completely mastered his art with this work. Fauré’s Second Violin Sonata was composed 41 years after the First in A major. Compared with the First Sonata Op.108 it has a more austere tone inflected with the frequent use of counterpoint and canonic invention. And some of the bold harmonies (although not atonal) were quite new and innovative for their time. It is worth mentioning that Fauré was a great admirer of Beethoven, especially his late quartets and their frequent use of fugue and counterpoint (he wrote a book on Beethoven’ ‘late style’ which is still referred to). What is particularly compelling about this later work is the wonderful writing for both instruments; a superb fusion where one instrument compliments the other. This even registers in the A major Andante which is rich in the most beautiful melodies, where the piano, towards the end of the movement, with the E major main theme subtended by an an off-beat quasi-ostinato figure in the piano. This fusion between violin and piano, with frequent digressions from both instruments (a kind of Hegelian ‘identity in opposites’) is well played out in the closing Allegro non troppo where, in the coda, the argument in the development section, with the pianist’s disruptive C major octaves threatening to subsume the violin figurations, is finally resolved in harmony with the violin’s high expressivo phrases imitated by the piano with E major arpeggios and canonic ‘imitation’

Again Faust and Melnikov registered a total empathy for these wonderful sonatas, bringing out all the sometimes quite complex canonic writing, especially in the Second one. The Françaix Sonatine and Anthiel Sonata for violin piano and drums were given charming and high spirited renditions. Although the Françaix sonata is considered to be ‘lighter’ music, or in the composer’s term ‘flaire plasir’, to ‘amuse’, to charm, rather than ‘impress’, there are some folk song dissonances, within a quite complex dynamic structure in the Andante, and the finale is a kind of compendium of dynamic and stylistic contrast, all contained in a five variation structure. The ‘Presto subito’, the brilliant ‘Piu lento’ and the very French sounding coda with E-string intrusions into the piano semiquavers are superbly composed in the manner of Poulenc, but having its own very distinctive voice.

The recital ended with Antheil’s ‘Sonata for violin, piano and drums’. Towards the close of this continuous Allegro movement – after some massive octaves from Melnikov filling the whole hall – the drum rhythms he played confirmed Antheil’s reputation as the ‘Bad Boy of music’. This expat American has also been called a ‘proto-postmodernist’, no doubt for his stated influences such as Picasso, and the Cubists, also his preference for montage images, and the incorporation of ‘old and sentimental’ songs into his compositions; tunes like ‘In the Shade of the Old Apple Tree’. Ezra Pound was a great supporter of Antheil, playing the drums in some of the earliest performances. It might have been his association with Pound (a Fascist sympathizer) that put him out of fashion. But tonight it all sounded brilliant, bizarre, and quite musically impressive. All together a most enjoyable recital with proof – if any is needed – that Fauré’s two Violin Sonatas (and many of his other chamber works) are second to none.

It is hoped that Faust and Melnikov will record especially the Szymanowski ‘Myths’ and those two Fauré sonatas. As a brief and most fitting encore, Faust and Melnikov treated us to a movement from Schumann’s Third Violin Sonata. Again played with real empathy, finesse and warmth.

Geoff Diggines

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