Isabelle Faust and Alexander Melnikov's Beethoven is as good as chamber music gets
A Vancouver Recital Society presentation. At the Chan Centre for the Performing Arts on Saturday and Sunday, May 26 and 27
How do you describe perfection? The words are there—brilliant, awesome, magical—but they’ve been worn threadbare by repetition. So let’s just say that the first concert in Isabelle Faust and Alexander Melnikov’s three-part performance of Ludwig van Beethoven’s complete sonatas for piano and violin was as good as chamber music gets—and the other two were only infinitesimally less marvellous.
To say more requires metaphor, especially as, in the case of Faust’s violin, the normal musical descriptors once again prove inadequate. From the very first moment she put bow to string, she invoked the florid lexicon of the oenophile. You could say that her tone tends toward the forward and chewy; it’s astonishingly complex. Yet she’s capable of bending to whatever the composer requires of her: on the Sonata No. 5 in F Major—the “Spring” sonata—she was fresh and herbaceous, while elsewhere she displayed the sweet depths of a fine Sauternes.
What pairs best with wine? Food, of course, and Melnikov proved no meat-and-potatoes accompanist. His deeply analytical approach seems the sonic equivalent of molecular gastronomy; like El Bulli chef Ferran Adrià, he’s capable of taking the most familiar ingredients, breaking them down to their elemental parts, and then recombining them to startling effect. Rather than simply playing Beethoven’s scores, he opened them up, finding buried countermelodies, making links to many of the great German’s artistic descendants, and bringing his own Slavic intensity to the mix.
The programming was interesting. Rather than present the sonatas in strict chronological order, on opening night Faust and Melnikov chose to follow the first three with the ninth, the “Kreutzer” sonata. This last part is one of Beethoven’s most adventurous works, and was widely misunderstood during the composer’s lifetime. In fact, its dedicatee, violinist Rodolphe Kreutzer, called it “outrageously unintelligible” and consequently never performed it.
He was very, very wrong.
Faust and Melnikov made the Sonata No. 9 in A Major entirely coherent, finding in it Beethoven’s radical political ideology—breaking with traditional hierarchy, it put the violin and piano on equal, democratic terms—while flirting with textures that briefly moved away from orthodox tonality into the realm of pure sound. Their “Kreutzer” was undoubtedly the weekend’s highlight—and, frankly, one of the most intellectually astonishing performances I have ever heard.
This set us up nicely for the second concert, and it seemed apt that at 11 a.m. on Sunday morning the two musicians should open with the Sonata No. 6 in A Major, in which Beethoven seems to be looking backward, for once. Back, in fact, to Johann Sebastian Bach and the Lutheran church. Even for this atheist, Faust and Melnikov’s reading of this most plainspoken of the sonatas verged on a religious experience.
The seventh and eight sonatas followed, leaving the fourth, fifth, and 10th for the matinee. More good programming: in the unlikely event that any listeners were flagging by 3 p.m., the irresistible “Spring” sonata would have cheered them up, and then the folksy 10th left us replete, and in mellow good spirits.
It should be noted that Faust seemed ever-so-slightly at odds with her instrument—a 1704 Stradivarius—during the Sunday morning program. Perhaps due to the change in weather, which can unsettle stringed instruments, she had to stop to retune between movements—but this was more of a visual distraction than an aural one. As ever, the music brought us both sustenance and intoxication. Who could ask for more?