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Beasley-Curtis Auditorium of the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill's beautifully restored Memorial Hall was well-filled with attentive music lovers eagerly anticipating an entire evening of sonatas for violin and piano by Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827). String fanciers looked forward to the regional debut of the distinguished violinist Isabelle Faust and pianist Alexander Melnikov on the Carolina Performing Arts Series. The duo's recording of Beethoven's complete sonatas for violin and piano won a Gramophone Award and Germany's ECHO Klassik Prize.
Faust is famous for her application of historically informed practice to her interpretations and playing. She plays a Stradivarius violin of 1704 known as the "Sleeping Beauty" violin. The moniker comes from its history. After the family that owned it no longer had a violinist, it was consigned to their attic for 150 years, only to be discovered in 1900. After Faust acquired it in 1996, it took six years to bring back its full sonic possibilities. Both Faust and Melnikov have extensive experience playing period instruments.
Instead of the heaven-storming Beethoven, all three selections explored more interiorly-based emotions. Sonata in A minor, Op. 23, opened the concert. There is a suggestive tension below the surface in all three movements. The opening movement juxtaposes vigorous and gentle passages. Serenity and playfulness are contrasted in the middle scherzo. The spare finale fluctuates major and minor keys within a driving intensity.
Sonata in F, Op. 24, "Spring," one of Beethoven's most popular, followed. Only an engraver's error kept this sonata from being published as a set with Op. 23. Significantly, the violin takes up the theme before the piano in this and the remaining sonatas. It is in four movements, a radiant allegro followed by a gorgeous, hushed and seraphic adagio. The quirky scherzo often finds the violin one beat behind the piano. A cheerful and effervescent finale ends the piece in high spirits.
Beethoven's Late Period mastery was evident in the Sonata in G, Op. 96, which brought the concert to a brilliant conclusion. The genial opening movement contrasted a sprightly first theme with a crisply ascending melody. In the profound adagio, melodies pass back and forth smoothly between the instruments. The scherzo has the quality of a folk-like waltz hampered by offbeat accents while toying with its key. The lively finale takes a folk-like theme through four variations: lyrical, vigorous, somber, and gruff before a final slow variation with long ornamental lines followed by a headlong rush.
Faust's tone was full of warmth and sweetness. The scope of her variety of color and dynamics was remarkable. Her intonation was immaculate and the clarity of her articulation in the fastest passages was truly marvelous. Her seamless spinning of the melodies in the adagios of both Op. 24 and Op. 96 was transporting. While much of the dynamics of these sonatas is gentle, Faust had plenty of heft for f passages such as martial the second theme of the first movement of Op. 24. Melnikov's accompaniment was equally masterful. His dynamics never covered Faust's violin even in the quietist passages despite having the Steinway's lid fully raised. He packed plenty of passion in his playing. There was an extraordinary virtuosity in the give-and-take between Faust and Melnikov. The mimicry, of one hand by the other as well as one instrument by the other in the Andante scherzoso of Op. 23, was a fine example of their teamwork.