Violinist Isabelle Faust (interviewed on BA podcast #51) has a long-standing creative relationship with pianist Alexander Melnikov. The two have a deep shared catalog of recordings and performances, and they’re joined on this six-CD box by cellist Jean-Guihen Queyras to perform complete sets of Ludwig van Beethoven‘s duos for violin and piano and duos for cello and piano, and two of his trio pieces.
None of the recordings are new. The violin/piano pieces were recorded in June, July and September 2008; the trio pieces in September 2011; and the cello/piano pieces in October and December 2013. But gathering them in one place like this allows the listener to roll around in it all like a dog in a pile of leaves.
The set opens with the trios — No. 6 in E flat major, written in 1808, and No. 7 in B flat major, from 1811. According to the liner notes, earlier piano trios were basically piano pieces with the violin and cello adding frills and atmosphere around the edges. Haydn and Mozart gave the stringed instruments increased freedom, and Beethoven continued down that path. On the first piece here, each player has a vitally important role to play, though they are frequently essaying the same melody or harmonizing closely with one another or engaging in an almost jazz-like call-and-response. The music moves through slow, swaying passages and uptempo, almost dance sections, but the high point, energy-wise, is the finale, which is practically manic and includes solo passages for each instrument, again giving the music an almost jazz-like feel. All three performers are almost breathless in their intensity, sprinting through the music and tossing the ball from one set of hands to another with precision and verve.
The second and third discs contain the most recent recordings, the 2013 cello/piano duos. Most of these are two-movement sonatas, though sonatas 3 and 5 have three movements each. Three stand-alone pieces are also included — two sets of variations on themes from Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte, and one set from Handel’s Judas Maccabeus. These pieces can be almost suspenseful at times, with excited piano passages shadowed by almost Carpathian cello melodies, and long pauses between, particularly in sonata no. 2. But when Melnikov gets going, his energy is boundless, and Queyras matches him, seeming to leap through the air in florid arcs; the cello’s typical heaviness is all but absent here.
The 10 pieces for violin and piano contained on the final three discs are even more exuberant. The sonata no. 2 in A major practically gallops along, Melnikov’s piano creating suspense worthy of a silent movie soundtrack as Faust’s violin sings. Sonata no. 7 combines short phrases that dart like fish with thunderous low-end outbursts, creating convulsive effects nearly worthy of Cecil Taylor or Matthew Shipp. Faust, meanwhile, soars blithely above Melnikov, a bird on the wing.
This is some of the best-known music in the classical canon. Still, whether you’ve heard it before or not, the impact of these immaculately recorded performances is almost physical. This set is glorious.