When Tolstoy listened to Beethoven’s “Kreutzer” Sonata, he imagined a crime of passion. Tolstoy wrote a story about a performance of this violin sonata that drives a husband to kill his wife after hearing her play it with another man.

Isabelle Faust
Isabelle Faust
Isabelle Faust, accompanied by pianist Alexander Melnikov, did not play Beethoven’s Op. 47  that way last night in Koerner Hall. Dressed in a diaphanous coat of shimmering green and magenta, her tone brought to mind a dragonfly hovering on transparent wings above the sparkling cascades of Melnikov’s piano. Their performance swelled with passion tempered by gentleness. The flow of emotions they generated was modulated by subtleties of a rapport that I found very sexy. The opening Adagio unfolded a drama between the delicacy of the violin and the piano’s languid demeanour. The main central section of the movement is marked Presto. Here, where the jealous anger is reputed to be, the voice of Faust’s violin flared, but was contained by the piano’s equally fleet but somehow reassuring measures. The Andante’s theme and five variations emerged as a living kaleidoscope of colours. Melnikov shadowed the dramas of Faust’s phantasmal lyrical flights and always provided her with a safe place to land. The Finale, which Beethoven had intended for another sonata but pressed into service here to meet a deadline, moved the energies of passion and fantasy into the physical. The duo wipped through a dance of rhythmic pivots and stops that ended by whirling off into space.

The “Kreutzer” belongs to Beethoven’s “Eroica” period when he began losing his hearing but had come fully into the strength of his genius. The evening’s opening work, the Violin Sonata no. 3 in E flat major, written five years earlier, looks back to the courtly style of Beethoven’s student days. Its loveliness is well-known, but the performance was remarkable. From the opening bars one noticed a perfect congruence of tone between these instruments of contrasting timbres. Melnikov matched Faust as she moved through textures from gritty to transparent, putting leather under her velvet, complimenting with crystal the violin’s electric gossamer.

Alexander Melnikov © Marco Borggreve
Alexander Melnikov
© Marco Borggreve
The Violin Sonata no. 4 in A minor of 1801 shows Beethoven in an experimental state, building out of short musical units rather than extended themes. The mood is urgent, at times turbulent. The conversation is organized into sequences of fugal volleys. The work is cerebral, teasing the ear with ambiguity and whimsy. The piano’s opening motif moved presto through both hands and passed to the violin. The violin balanced long legato lines against the piano’s dimpling, arpeggiated ripples. The Adagio, a fugue played with an unspeakably gentle lilt, rose without a hint of force to a vivid energy state like the flight of a dragonfly. The combined touch of violin and piano was so light and fleeting it created a silence into which the movement vanished. The finale in Rondo emerged by the power of gentleness as a luxurious display of distinctions all within the subtle. The movement ends centripetally, drawing the listener into a final suspension.

Beethoven wrote nine of his violin sonatas within the space of five years for the booming chamber-music market around the turn of the century. His last one, the Violin Sonata no. 10 in G major, “The Cockcrow”, came ten years later. It looks ahead to the “inward probing of his late music”. The Allegro opens with the stir and flutter of a lyrical exchange between players, darting in a trembling passion that looks ahead to Debussy. The playing offers a lapidary attention to detail of emotions whose strength is sensed because their expression is artfully understated. The second movement opened with a piano passage constructed like the introduction to a song, and Faust enters with a tender, weeping melody braced by her instrument’s earthy tone. The final Scherzo is a rippling dance in which the partners alternately synchronize their steps and move at variance through sudden stops and adventurous moves.

For an encore, we were offered John Cage’s Nocturne (1947). This  piece is so eerily soft-spoken, it might have seemed out of place. However, in the context of how Faust and Melnikov played Beethoven, it sounded like what Beethoven’s work might have evolved into had he lived into the middle of the 20th century.