MOZART Sonatas for Fortepiano & Violin, Vol 1 (Faust & Melnikov)
The past couple of years have seen the appearance of Alina Ibragimova’s cycle of all Mozart’s music for violin and keyboard, with the pianist Cédric Tiberghien (Hyperion). Their five two-disc sets were praised almost universally and would seem set fair to become a modern benchmark for this music. Now comes Isabelle Faust with the first volume of ‘Sonatas for Fortepiano and Violin’. Whether that ultimately implies an exhaustive conspectus, like Ibragimova’s, or just the later works, omitting the juvenilia, remains to be seen.
Faust and Ibragimova are similar musicians in many ways, equally adept on modern and period instruments and with an exploratory approach to everything they play. Ibragimova’s Mozart was on modern instruments; Faust, on the other hand, plays her 1704 ‘Sleeping Beauty’ Stradivari, while Alexander Melnikov’s fortepiano is a copy of a 1795 Anton Walter. The difference in sound is apparent from the very first note of the D major Sonata, K306: a simple tune in thirds in the piano right hand over an Alberti-style left hand with the violin doubling, an octave higher, the implied bass line. The separation between instruments – the violin accompanying the keyboard here – is clearly demarcated between Ibragimova and Tiberghien, while the greater similarity of tone between Faust’s sparkling violin and Melnikov’s glittering fortepiano (within an airier acoustic) results in a sound more akin to the jingling of small bells. It’s delicious.
This is domestic music, and the instruments of the day were scaled to such private performances. Modern instruments are designed to project, and Ibragimova and Tiberghien’s readings were conceived to do just that: first in the Wigmore Hall, where they performed this cycle, then at the concert hall of the Wyastone Estate in Monmouth, their recording venue. Two contrasting conceptions of the same music.
Ibragimova’s evenness and fullness of tone contrasts with Faust’s range of dynamics, especially at low levels – there are some breathtaking pianissimos that whisper so confidingly that the voice almost cracks. And repeated-note figures, in the finale of K306, say, draw a huge tonal variety from Faust’s Strad. Melnikov’s piano, too, can ring, roar or gently croon, making some beguiling sounds in the Schubertian hymn of K304’s second movement.
Comparing the same sonatas in the two recordings has been instructive but has not made it any easier to decide whether either is more valid, whether one is preferable to the other. Each has satisfied in its own ways, making a simple choice between one or the other invidious. Nevertheless, for those attuned to the less refined sound of period instruments, Faust and Melnikov demand to be heard.