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Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
Sonatas for Fortepiano and Violin - Volume 1
Sonata in D major, K 306 (1778) [22:03]
Sonata in E minor, K 304 (1778) [17:15]
Sonata in A major, K 526 (1787) [26:27]
Isabelle Faust (violin)
Alexander Melnikov (fortepiano)
rec 2017, Teldex Studio, Berlin
HARMONIA MUNDI HMM902360 [65:50]

Once again Alexander Melnikov is given license to show off his predilection for period keyboards, while Isabelle Faust’s adventurous approach to familiar repertoire is very much to the fore in this lovely disc of Mozart. It is appetisingly labelled as ‘Volume 1’ in what one hopes will be as comprehensive a survey of this repertoire as Alina Ibragimova and Cedric Tiberghien’s recently completed ten disc, five volume project for Hyperion. While the latter pairing’s extremely sympathetic accounts featured modern instruments, their readings were punctuated throughout with nods to historically informed performance. Faust’s lightness of touch and purity of tone, together with the sound of Melnikov’s ripely characterful fortepiano fully embrace a yet more intimate approach, leaving the listener in little doubt as to the domestic impulse behind this music. Moreover, Harmonia Mundi’s precise sound is surprisingly obliging in enabling the listener to imagine experiencing this music in the half-light, as it were.

Mozart’s six sonatas K.301 - K.306 emerged during his final, unhappy sojourn in Paris in 1778. They marked a return to a musical form he had first presented during a very different trip to the French capital in 1764, when as a seven year old prodigy he unveiled a couple of sonatas ‘with optional violin’. In a concise and informative note for this disc, Wolfgang Fuhrmann tells us that en route to Paris 15 years later Mozart had come across a set of sonatas by the Dresden composer Joseph Schuster. He admired them not least for the equal status Schuster accorded the two instruments. This seems to have provided the creative stimulus for his own collection. In fact, these six pieces, in turn, pre-empt later developments in the form, most notably Beethoven’s ten masterpieces.

The disc kicks off with K.306 in D major, the last of the set, conventionally cast in three movements. In its opening Allegro con spirito Melnikov sets off at a fair lick, but not so fast that it compromises the listener’s appreciation of Mozart’s astonishing melodic fecundity. This experienced partnership’s approach to this music is delightfully conversational. Isabelle Faust draws a glorious range of colours from her 1704 ‘Sleeping Beauty’ Strad. The music radiates considerably more depth than its deceptively simple surfaces may suggest. The initial bars of the Andante cantabile project measured stateliness in Melnikov’s hands, while Faust’s long phrases are songful and delicately shaded. This slower music gives us a better idea of the earthy timbres Melnikov’s fortepiano (a replica of a 1795 instrument by Anton Walter) can produce. These sounds beautifully compliment Faust’s crystalline violin and the intimacy of Mozart’s inspiration. The dialogue of the concluding Allegretto is appropriately playful and almost mischievous. Faust dashes off the rapid repeated notes of its introduction with perfectly controlled lightness. The equal status of the two instruments is epitomised in this movement’s cadenza. Melnikov and Faust display telepathic empathy as well as breathtaking delicacy in its elegant intersections.

The two-movement E minor sonata K.304 is a different beast entirely. The introduction to its opening Allegro is played on both instruments, separated by two octaves. The music is pensive and riven with a barely suppressed sense of regret, an impression reinforced by Faust’s reading of the violin melody that follows immediately. Yet the gloom is almost erased by the airy, contrasting material which seems to emerge directly from it. Fuhrmann provides some interesting insight into the formal experiments Mozart seems to be conducting in this movement, while Melnikov and Faust convey amply and compellingly the emotional ambiguities at the heart of this rather disturbing music. The Tempo di minuetto movement with which the sonata concludes embodies an opening theme which Fuhrmann likens to the French Baroque; some of the ‘fluttering’ effects produced by both of these players are certainly consistent with such a thought. Faust’s hushed playing of the sepulchral material which triggers the conclusion of the work is deeply affecting. This account of this most singular sonata certainly forces one to listen with fresh ears.

By 1787 and the completion of the A major sonata K.526 Mozart was halfway through the composition of Don Giovanni. Many commentators have noted its rather Bachian characteristics, but what emerges most in this performance is the controlled vigour of the dialogue between the two instruments. This is unmistakably mature Mozart, elegant, fluent and memorable. Melnikov and Faust at once imbue this familiar music with vivacity and freshness. The call and response elements of the opening Molto allegro are delightfully shaded and projected, while the central Andante could indeed be a distant cousin of Bach’s Italian Concerto, as Wolfgang Fuhrmann suggests. In its opening bars Melnikov’s playing is rapt and Faust’s response attentive, sensitive and wholly poetic. The attractions of her Gramophone Award recording of Mozart’s violin concertos (especially the slow movements) come to mind here. The Presto finale is featherlight and playful. Melnikov’s articulation is spry and crisp, while Faust’s account of the mercurial violin part, apparently inspired by the recently deceased Carl Abel, fizzes with joie de vivre.
The three works presented here work splendidly as a programme. They each illustrate very different aspects of Mozart. If Ibragimova and Tiberghien made a compelling case for this repertoire as material that might flourish in the concert hall (or recording studio), here Faust and Melnikov have managed to illuminate its intimacy by reimagining how these works may have been consumed by audiences at the time of their creation. It is patently an enterprise that must have involved fastidious technical (and emotional) preparation, yet the playing that has resulted is pleasingly natural and completely unaffected. I daresay many readers will be decisively polarised towards either the modern or the authentic approach. For my part, I can happily accommodate both. The playing here combines the judicious taste, matchless technical skill and supreme emotional intelligence of two fantastic musicians. The recorded sound has been perfectly managed. Volume 2 cannot come quickly enough.

Richard Hanlon

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