Classical CD Reviews

WEBER: Piano Quartet in B-flat Major; 6 Sonatas – Isabelle Faust, violin/Boris Faust, viola/ Wolfgang Emanuel Schmidt, cello/ Alexander Melnikov, fortepiano – Harmonia mundi

Violin virtuoso Isabelle Faust and her devoted coterie explore that “wayward” Romantic Carl Maria von Weber with suave aplomb, introducing to Weber’s neglected Piano Quartet.

Published on December 25, 2012

WEBER: Piano Quartet in B-flat Major; 6 Sonatas – Isabelle Faust, violin/Boris Faust, viola/ Wolfgang Emanuel Schmidt, cello/ Alexander Melnikov, fortepiano – Harmonia mundi

WEBER: Piano Quartet in B-flat Major, Op. 8; 6 Sonatas for Violin and Fortepiano, Op. 10 – Isabelle Faust, violin/Boris Faust, viola/ Wolfgang Emanuel Schmidt, cello/ Alexander Melnikov, fortepiano – Harmonia mundi HMC 902108, 70:11 ****:

The Six Violin Sonatas, Op. 10 of Carl Maria von Weber (1810) are the result of a commission by publisher Anton Andre, who wanted works of moderate difficulty for a Beidermeier sensibility, the domestic music-making of the upper middle class. Weber, who often indulged in colorful and nationalistic virtuoso composition, complained of what he called “a swine of a job”; then he submitted works that outshone Andre’s expectations, and Andre found them unacceptable. “I explained to [Andre] that I could not and would not ever write such rubbish,” wrote Weber to his friend Godfried Weber. The publisher Simrock, however, accepted the set of two- and three-movement works whose violin demands remain modest but whose keyboard part often tests even a gifted amateur. Among the legendary violinists who have addressed these often sparkling works on record are Alfredo Campoli and Ruggiero Ricci.

Isabelle Faust and Alexander Melnikov open with No. 6 in C Major, a flamboyant three-movement piece that sets the tone for the entire set: charming, sweet melodies juxtaposed with sudden and whimsical shifts of tone and temper, especially in rather sudden harmonic shifts. Weber always makes much of national dance forms, and here the last movement, a stately Polacca, provides a model for later Romantics like Chopin and Tchaikovsky. The Sonata in G Major (No. 3), in two movements, begins with an Air Russe that seems innocent until it explodes with a force reminiscent of Beethoven. The Rondo-Presto that follows has all the motor earmarks of Mendelssohn fertilized by Mozart’s wit. The Sonata No. 4 in E-flat Major reverts to a more conventional late-Classical style, though imbued with some romantic introspection. After a thoughtful Moderato, the Rondo-Vivace cavorts and canters in a lyrically glib manner, Faust’s bow bouncing or strings plucked in harmony with Melnikov’s ripe accompaniment.

The No. 2 in G Major proffers immediately a Carratere Espagnole, a spirited bolero that easily abashes the amateur’s fingers. Even the Adagio conveys an eerie tension; then, we are frolicking once more via an Air Polonais that could be construed for early Beethoven. Sonata No. 5 in A sports the longest opening movement of the set: Melnikov solo introduces the Tema dell’opera Silvana that provides a series of bravura duets in variation. The “Italianate” character proceeds into the second movement, a Siciliano whose easy swagger –interrupted by a moment of Weber’s mania – nods to Mozart’s sense of refined beauty. Faust and Melnikov end the set with No. 1 in F Major, a three-movement opus whose opening Allegro has a broken style, a combination of C.P.E. Bach and young Beethoven. The brief Romanze second movement has the dignified air of a Baroque opera aria. The Rondo: Amabile, jaunty and sprightly, has Faust’s wiry 1704 Stradivarius add selected colors to Melnikov’s active keyboard part.

Weber completed his 1809 Piano Quartet in Stuttgart, and the work contains Weber’s “contradictory” mannerisms that well define his Romantic temperament. The opening Allegro con fuoco, except for its bravura keyboard writing, seems rather conventional, though the last four minutes become aggressive and sinister. But with the E-flat Major Adagio ma non troppo the atmosphere changes abruptly: built as a series of fragments: Weber experiments with chromaticism, passing dissonances, and silences in ways that rival both Beethoven and Bartok. The pit yawns before us several times, perhaps that same “enchanted and holy” place to which Coleridge refers. A burst of cascading figures in G Minor invokes a host a future composers, even as a bolero motif swings through the morass. The Menuetto, too, confounds our expectations, set in martial tones then wandering in its Trio among strange harmonic paths. The Matteo Gofriller instrument wielded by cellist Wolfgang Emanuel Schmidt has its singing moments to excellent effect. The Finale wants to play with counterpoint from the outset, the galloping tune ready- made for Weber’s coy polyphony. The few digressions into the minor point out for the composer his self-confessed “difference from Beethoven in my conceptions to imagine I could ever concur with him.” Yet Simrock published this “wayward” piece, and he was Beethoven’s great source for public dissemination. Irony of ironies?

—Gary Lemco




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