CHAMBER MUSIC SOCIETY OF SALT LAKE CITY, Isabelle Faust, violin, Alexander Melnikov, piano, Libby Gardner Concert Hall, Jan. 27
The time-honored tradition of violin recital programs features music diverse in style, national origin and epoch, balancing longer “serious” sonatas with shorter, technically dazzling “showpieces.” Even contemporary music has embedded itself into the standard mix. Attractive combinations are easy enough to come by — there are literally hundreds of quality pieces of music to choose from in the enormously fertile violin repertoire. For the gifted soloist it’s a foolproof formula. If the audience doesn’t care for the Bach, they’ll warm up to the Franck, and will go absolutely batty over the Sarasate.
So it was all the more daring of violinist Isabelle Faust and pianist Alexander Melnikov to select a program of music by three composers who lived in the same neighborhood. Beethoven, Weber and Schubert, drawn to Vienna in the early 19thcentury, knew each other and heard each other’s music. Each, in his way, was a standard-bearer for the early romantic period. Where, though, is the diversity that audiences seem to crave?
It lies in large part in the artistic vision of each composer and how that vision is manifest in the structure of the music on Faust’s program. Mozart and Haydn, by setting the bar preposterously high both in craft and esthetic depth, almost forced their successors to strike off in new directions.
Beethoven’s approach was to take the inherited forms of the sonata and symphony and create a new dramatic landscape by expanding them in both length and scope. There is a lot made of stylistic change among Beethoven’s so-called “three periods,” but to my ear the case is overstated and the similarities are equally great as the supposed differences. I’d argue that if someone were to switch his Third Symphony, Eroica, with his Eighth when no one was looking, it would create a much more “sensible” continuum. Even in the E flat Sonata that Faust played Monday night, Beethoven’s unmistakable voice is omnipresent, though he was only 28 years old and Haydn’s reign was still in full swing. The key of E flat clearly maintained a particular, good-natured, fraternal lyricism in Beethoven’s ear throughout his life. Think of the last movement of the Eroica or the op. 70, no. 2 piano trio: the concise yet flowing melodic lines; unsurpassed clarity of motivic development; the dramatic, sudden changes of harmonic weather; the occasional aggressive verticality. It’s all there in the op. 12 sonata, though the overall structure of the piece is rigorously classical. It would be six years before his monumental Kreutzer Sonata and Eroica Symphony would change the concert landscape forever, but even by 1798 Beethoven had firmly established himself as a legitimate heir to his predecessors’ throne.
A wonderful addition to the printed program, announced from the stage, was a performance of Beethoven’s 10th and final sonata, op. 96 in G Major. More reflective and quixotic than the earlier sonata, it shows an older Beethoven moving in new and freer directions, echoes of which can be heard in later composers like Brahms and Schumann.
Franz Schubert’s everlasting fame is unquestionably linked to his hundreds of incomparable lieder. There has never been (and I would guess never will be) a composer who approached the sheer number of his songs, let alone their depth. Though he composed scads of sonatas, symphonies, and chamber music, which take a back seat to no one, it was his innovative transformation of the sonata into what he called a “fantasy” that influenced the artistic vision of composers like Liszt and Schumann. Schubert’s Wanderer Fantasy and the F minor Fantasy for Four-Hand Piano, are the greatest examples of that form, both musically and in dazzling technical virtuosity.
Unlike the baroque fantasy, which is greatly improvisatory and flows freely like a stream, the structure of Schubert’s incarnation is like the bridge spanning it — architecturally conceived of structural supports connected by motivic cables. Like a sonata it is a multi-movement work that has a substantial first movement, a scherzo-like movement, a slow movement, and a vigorous finale. What is different from the traditional sonata is that all the movements of the fantasy are connected and are performed nonstop. Additionally, the themes from the first movement are interlinked and developed within the other movements and return as an integral component of the finale. In this way, the entire work can also be perceived as a single, huge sonata-allegro movement. For Schubert, this was a perfect structural solution to his innate sense of melody, which typically unfolds in a much more expansive, leisurely and vocal fashion than Beethoven. (Ten minutes of Beethoven somehow seem to go by much more quickly than 10 minutes of Schubert — not that I would ever want it any differently.) Unfettered from a singer’s limitation to have to breathe now and then, Schubert revels in the instrumental player’s ability to spin out endless melody. And then, of course, is Schubert’s uncanny harmonic inventiveness, the envy of later imitators like Bruckner and Humperdinck.
Carl Maria von Weber chose a third new path, that of national opera. In a world that had been dominated for 200 years by Italian influence, Weber took the idea of composing an opera in German from Mozart (The Abduction from the Seraglio and The Magic Flute) and ran with it by incorporating Germanic themes and folk traditions, of which Die Freischütz is the most famous example. The quality of Weber’s operas won the accolades of no less a composer than Hector Berlioz, and certainly laid the groundwork for Wagner’s later achievements.
The same compliments can hardly be paid to Weber’s solo instrumental works. They generally lack the depth and craftsmanship either of his operas or of his esteemed contemporaries, Beethoven and Schubert, with each of whom Weber had an on-again, off-again contentious relationship. Weber was further restricted in the two sonatas performed by Faust in that the publisher wanted the level of their technical difficulty to be modest enough for them to be played in the home. That Weber bristled at this constraint is to his credit. His first publisher rejected his efforts for being too difficult, but they eventually made their way into print and provided a tasty palate cleanser between the loftier creations on Faust’s program. Even so, on those rare occasions we have the pleasure of hearing someone of Faust’s exquisite caliber, one would have wished for music of greater substance. One might wonder why the Beethoven op. 96 isn’t performed more often. One might wonder the reverse for the Weber.
Throughout, Faust and Melnikov were wonderful collaborators, adjusting balances and colors with sensitivity and good taste. Faust has impeccable technique and a lustrous tone, and there’s a lot to be said for those qualities, though maybe she tended to fall back on those strengths a little too often. There were moments when the interpretation seemed too uniformly personal and introspective. Granted, this is chamber music more ideally performed in a more intimate space, but the reality is that Gardner Hall has some tricky acoustics, and on occasion articulations were lost and on others the violin was swallowed by the open-lidded piano, particularly in the violin’s middle range. Beyond acoustics, though, there were times when the music could have been more robust and effervescent, for instance in the buoyant and outgoing (at least that’s how I hear it) first movement of the E flat Beethoven sonata, which then would have made Faust’s touchingly played Adagio that much more effective.
That being said, the way the duo played the beginning of the Andantino in the Schubert, based upon his poignant song “Sei mir gegrüsst” (“I greet you”) was by itself worth the price of admission. “A breath of love erases space and time; I am with you, you are with me, I hold you in these arms, embracing you; I greet you, I kiss you!” It was simply memorably beautiful playing of memorably beautiful music, and demonstrated why Faust is one of the leading violinists in the world today.