Violinist Isabelle Faust and Pianist Alexander Melnikov gave a charming and clean, if occasionally restrained, performance of Beethoven sonatas on Friday night at Mandel Hall at the University of Chicago in Hyde Park. The German Faust has been partnering with the Russian Melnikov for 15 years. Among their many accomplishments is the 2010 Grammy-nominated recording of Beethoven’s ten sonatas for piano and violin. In their Chicago recital debut on Friday night, Faust and Melnikov performed three of these sonatas, demonstrating marvelous ensemble playing and precise adherence to the score. While it ended superbly, in the early going they seemed to be holding something back.
Part of the challenge was the material. While Beethoven left an indelible imprint on symphonies, string quartets, piano sonatas, and other musical combinations, his violin sonatas were less impactful. All but one of them are from his early period where he experimented, sometimes unsuccessfully, within the musical forms established by Haydn and Mozart. While there are several examples of brilliance in early Beethoven, the violin sonatas are unreliable.
To open the concert Faust and Melnikov performed two works from 1802. The first, Sonata No. 4 in a-minor, Op. 23, starts with a fast paced movement that is pleasing enough. While Faust and Melnikov brought out the many quiet and loud contrasts and displayed moments of passion, they didn’t produce the drama that can be gotten from this music. However, I applaud them for honoring all of Beethoven’s repeats, including the second half, which few ensembles bother to repeat.
In the next movement Beethoven substitutes a playful scherzo for the traditional dance-like minuet. In most scherzos Beethoven speeds things up, but here he slows it down with a tune that is not particularly interesting. Faust and Melnikov made the best of it, with note-perfect playing and careful adherence to changes in dynamics, but they could not prevent the lagging that often results from a dull score. (Make no mistake, however; it is always worth hearing Beethoven, even when he’s not at his best.)
The a-minor sonata’s high point is the finale, which flies at the listener right from the beginning, where Melnikov deftly played the melody and infill, equaled by Faust when she took up the theme. While the ensemble playing was tight, Faust and Melnikov could have played with a bit more fire.
They were much better on the next work, the Sonata in F-major, Op. 24, the so-called Spring sonata. This work shows off the subtle, charming side of Beethoven, as opposed to the dramatic version exhibited in the a-minor sonata. In the opening, Faust beautifully bowed through the lengthy and sweet melody that underpins this movement, as Melnikov delicately backed her up. Their musical precision was evident while passing long runs between themselves with each note played evenly and clearly.
The finale offers the catchiest tune of the concert’s first half, and Faust and Melnikov performed it wonderfully. One instrument plays the main melody, which briefly rises but ends on a quick descent, while the other supports with two adjacent notes going back and forth. Whether playing the main melody or the backing, Faust and Melnikov captured the essential interplay between these musical forces with memorable effect.