Isabelle Faust / Alexander Melnikov

Brahms: Volin Sonatas; Dietrich, Schumann, Brahms: F.A.E. Sonata

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There are plenty of recordings of Brahms' second and third violin sonatas, cornerstones of the violin chamber repertoire that demand much from the players in terms of keeping melody and motivic intricacy balanced. This one, from the violin-and-piano duo of Isabelle Faust and Alexander Melnikov, has several features that make it stand out. One is the presence of a third sonata that's rarely recorded (along with three Romances by Robert Schumann that are not exactly common items themselves). This is the so-called F-A-E Sonata, a collaborative work by the young Brahms (who wrote the Scherzo), Schumann (who wrote the slow movement and the exuberant finale), and Schumann's student Albert Dietrich. The work's dedicatee was Joseph Joachim, who had adopted the motto "Frei aber einsam" (free but lonesome) that gave the work its name. Joachim was challenged to identify the composer of each movement and did so without difficulty; you may well do the same, but the work, unified by the F-A-E pitches used in the thematic material, is more than the gimmick it might seem. The otherwise unknown Dietrich was pushed to what are probably his greatest heights by his two talented co-composers, and the opening sonata-form movement at least inhabits the same world as Schumann and Brahms. The other novelty here is Melnikov's period piano, an 1875 Bösendorfer that strips away a good deal of the warm Steinway haze the sonatas have in most performances and leaves in its place a rather spare performance that even in the songful Violin Sonata No. 2, Op. 100, shifts the listener's attention to the motivic structure, perhaps in recognition of the fact that Brahms designated the Violin Sonata No. 2 a sonata "for piano and violin." The performance has the clarity that characterizes Melnikov's solo recordings of Romantic repertory, even if the case for period instruments is a good deal less clear here than it is in earlier music. At the very least, however, this is an intriguing Brahms recording, and the Teldex Studio sound is superb.

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