Authentic but ambivalent Beethoven from Faust, Queyras and Melnikov in Vancouver

CanadaCanada Beethoven: Isabelle Faust (violin), Jean-Guihen Queyras (cello), Alexander Melnikov (piano). Vancouver Playhouse, Vancouver, 9.2.2020. (GN)

Faust Queyras Melnikov Trio © Josep Molina

Beethoven – Kakadu Variations in G major Op.121a; Piano Trio in E-flat major Op.70 No.2; Piano Trio in B-flat major Op.97 ‘Archduke’

One would be hard pressed to think of more illustrious musicians than German violinist Isabelle Faust, French-Canadian cellist Jean-Guihen Queyras and Russian pianist Alexander Melnikov. Bonded by their Harmonia Mundi roots, they have a distinguished collection of chamber music recordings, and each enjoys an enviable performing and recording career as a soloist. Faust and Melnikov performed the complete Beethoven Violin Sonatas for the Vancouver Recital Society a decade ago, and Queyras and Melnikov have collaborated, but this all-Beethoven concert is the first time all three artists have appeared here together.

Their ‘authentic’ style was distinctive: vibrato was employed sparingly, and there was great beauty and transparency in execution as well as a strong consistency of method. It was the dominance of method that united the interpretations of the three trios: quieter passages were almost automatically given a stark gravity while purposive material received strong rhythmic emphasis and edge. For those accustomed to padded and amiable chamber music, this approach might seem somewhat severe. It often replaces the unassuming flow of the music by finely-chiselled blocks of contrasting structure and detail, while painting Beethoven mainly in his attitudinal extremes. There are tangible rewards, not least in terms of transparency, but the results at this concert were variable: the opening pieces were impressive yet the famous Archduke Trio came off as unyielding, failing to find much of its natural flow and humanity.

The strengths of this ensemble were evident in the Kakadu Variations: the wonderful blend and give-and-take between Faust and Queyras, with Melnikov always courting his own innovations in the piano part. Faust and Queyras are an interesting pairing: the articulation of the former is remarkably pure and disciplined while the latter tends to be softer and more flexible. Compared to the group’s 2014 recordings of the trios, the sound was not fully authentic, since Melnikov played a modern Steinway grand rather than an 1828 Graf, though he displayed much of his fortepiano style on the larger instrument.

This mixture of variations (written 1803, revised 1816, published 1824) came off very well. After an Introduzione notable for its dynamic control and sense of distilled space – the prelude to Wenzel Müller’s somewhat banal theme – the artists brought sharp character to the ten subsequent variations that allowed them to mix and match their efforts. Melnikov certainly showed his coaxing individuality in No.2; Queyras showed a special sensitivity in the cello-dominated No.3 and collaborated splendidly with Faust in No.5. Each of the variations was individual and distinct in this approach, and one was left with renewed appreciation of the reach of the slow No.9.

Beethoven’s Piano Trio Op.70 No.2 is a more genial work than its ‘Geister’ companion of the same opus, but it might be difficult to discern this from the extended probing at the opening. I thought the expression could have been simpler. The Allegro moved forward at a considered pace, showing ingenuity in unraveling and putting back together its structural blocks in such a way that the architecture is stronger and the voicings are more distinct. This required a lot of dramatic control, and while the movement might have gained in structural symmetry and rhythmic definition, its motion remained slightly burdened. The sunny countenance of the Andante did not last for long without intervention, and the way the music was effectively deconstructed into little bits was not very communicative. The finale should play itself, but even here there was something conscientious in the way the rhythms were inflected. Faust’s upward ascent on her violin towards the end was marvellously executed, but I missed a sense of freedom and elation. I appreciate the novelty in the group’s concept for this work but, on this occasion, there was too much calculation.

There are few movements in Beethoven’s output with greater lyrical development and ingenuity than the long opening Allegro of the ‘Archduke’ Trio. Other pieces that might achieve this status are the opening movements of the first Razumovsky quartet and the Piano Concerto No.4. In all of them, it is the ability of the performer to find that elusive sense of unfolding and inexorability that keeps the listener captivated. And the premium is on finding the right underlying flow to put all the different structural blocks and subtle textural shadings in place.

This performance seemed to forego that principle and attacked the movement demonstratively without aiming at underlying lyrical flow. Starting from a pretty quick tempo, virtually all the parts of the first movement’s development were presented in bold relief, with strong punctuations between them (usually supplied by Melnikov’s piano). The perspective communicated was that there is nothing serene or flowing about Beethoven’s makeup: he simply veers abruptly from one extreme emotion to another. Unfortunately, within three minutes concentration flagged: the unremitting emphasis (on everything) made it impossible to latch on to anything of deep importance. Even the wonderfully human moment later in the movement, where violin and cello descend to pianissimo with their tender yearning phrases, didn’t speak. I found this more oppressive than enjoyable: there was simply no space in the presentation for the contemplation of meaning. But, just maybe, one could get a break from this intensity in the wonderful Scherzo, allowing us to savour its piquant charm and wit while breaking a smile occasionally? Not a bit of it: it was remarkably severe and driving, with all the repeats too. And so went the story – the expression seemed forced throughout. I have rarely encountered an ‘Archduke’ with so little joy.

Given my admiration for the artists, this performance appears to be very much a one-off. It differs markedly from their recording which, while sometimes a little breezy, does have greater flow and intimacy with the fortepiano in tow. One factor to consider is that this was the final work played on their five-concert North American tour, and fatigue may have set it. Additionally, Melnikov played this concert with a fortepiano in Princeton three days prior, so the group may not have completely adjusted back to playing with the bigger sound. There is no doubt that the weight of the Steinway contributed to the overemphasis.

Geoffrey Newman

Previously published in a slightly different form on

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