Beethoven: Violin Sonatas

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COMPOSERS: Beethoven
LABELS: Harmoni Mundi
WORKS: Violin Sonatas
PERFORMER: Isabelle Faust (violin), Alexander Melnikov (piano)
CATALOGUE NO: HMC 902025-7

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These are the most stimulating and fascinating accounts of the Beethoven violin sonatas I have heard in many years. Isabelle Faust and Alexander Melnikov bring out the full quirkiness of the earlier works as well as their beauty, and their playing is remarkably accomplished throughout. Faust reflects the Viennese taste in Beethoven’s day for light, strongly articulated bowing, much of it ‘off-the-string’, with sparing vibrato.

Particularly fine is their account of the profoundly original last sonata, Op. 96. Melnikov and Faust allow its opening movement (also contained on the accompanying DVD) to unfold in leisurely fashion, and in an atmosphere of hushed lyricism, though their decision to append a ‘turn’ to the ubiquitous trill that forms such an integral part of the main subject’s melodic line may not be to everyone’s taste.

As for the Kreutzer Sonata, their performance of the opening movement contains a welcome detail that’s seldom heard. Shortly after the start of the presto main section the music’s momentum is momentarily halted by two fermatas (notated pauses), the second of which is filled in here with an improvisatory flurry of arpeggios from the piano.

When Beethoven himself rehearsed the piece with George Augustus Polgreen Bridgetower, the violinist for whom he originally wrote it, Bridgetower took it upon himself to imitate the piano when the same point was reached in the repeat, to Beethoven’s apparent delight. Bridgetower subsequently wrote down his improvisation in his copy of the printed violin part, and Isabelle Faust incorporates it into her performance.

I’m not so sure, however, that Beethoven would necessarily have approved of the occasional spontaneous change Faust and Alexander Melnikov make to some of the other sonatas: a few little melodic ornaments and alterations, the occasional exaggerated pause between phrases, the mannerism of ‘rolled’ left-hand piano chords, the reversal of dynamics in the repeats.

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But nonetheless these stimulating performances demand to be heard. Misha Donat