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.
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.
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.
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