Not known as a musical iconoclast, poor old Weber, it seems, had a hard time getting these works accepted, if we are to believe the reaction of his publishers. The Piano Quartet, according to them, exhibited a “wanton confusion in the arrangement of its ideas”, and worse, imitated the “bizarreries” of Beethoven. The Six Violin Sonatas were a commission for a collection of short pieces of moderate difficulty for the domestic market. It’s never easy for a classy musician to “dumb down” and Weber sweated blood over what he described as a “swine of a job”. In the end they were rejected, according to the composer, “on the splendid grounds that they’re too good and they ought to be much duller”. Both sets were eventually taken on by a more enlightened publisher and here we have a rare opportunity to hear them played by as first rate a set of chamber musicians as you could hope for in this day and age.
Isabelle Faust and Alexander Melnikov won awards left right and centre for their complete Beethoven Violin Sonatas a couple of years ago and it’s fair to say they bring an unprecedented grace and sophistication to these Weber sonatas. The technical demands, especially for the violin, may not be great, but there is little here that is routine and a great deal of inventiveness and caprice. These two delightful players really probe the works, seeking out any opportunity for nuanced expression and investing each and every phrase with shape and emotional energy.
In a nice piece of programming, for variety, the Piano Quartet is placed midway between the sonatas. It all starts off innocently enough, but the boat soon begins to rock with some distinctly unexpected harmonic modulations and false notes. It rapidly develops into a roller coaster of a work, imbued with the romantic spirit of E.T.A. Hoffmann and his ilk – an apt chamber musical exercise for the composer of the spooky Der Freischütz. One feels that it’s very much the pianist’s hand on the throttle of Weber’s ghost train, plunging ahead one moment, the next, pulling back to create a vacuum filled by some distinctly ectoplasmic string sounds. The violinist’s brother Boris on viola and Wolfgang Emanuel Schmidt on cello prove ideal partners in crime, joining Faust and Melnikov, who incidentally plays a rich-toned Lagrassa fortepiano. The recorded sound is full- bodied and natural.