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Jacques Thibaud in Concert
Edouard LALO (1823-1892)

Symphonie espagnole Op.21 (1873)
Orchestre Radio-Symphonique/Jean Martinon, recorded in Brussels, February 1953
Camille SAINT-SAËNS (1835-1921)

Violin Concerto No.1 in A minor Op.20 (1859)
Introduction and Rondo capriccioso Op.28 (1863)
Hessischen Radio Orchestra/Alceo Galliera, recorded Frankfurt, 29 April 1953
Ernest CHAUSSON (1855-1899)

Poème Op.25 (1896)
Orchestre de la Suisse Romande/Ernest Ansermet, recorded Geneva, 17 November 1941
APR 5644 [67.09]


One of the most heartening aspects of the last decade for violin fanciers has been the expansion of Jacques Thibaud’s previously minimal live discography. Some broadcasts had long been known and examples had circulated privately or semi-privately – those three Mozart Concerto performances with Enescu in 1951 for example – but it had seemed that the vaults were well and truly locked until fairly recently. I can’t say we have had a Milsteinian avalanche of material – Thibaud was killed in 1953 – but we have had enough to mark every new such release with anticipation. In fact newly restored examples of his live performances from c.1941-53 are turning up (almost) regularly now and I’ve seen recently that another Chausson and the Lalo Symphonie espagnole – different from the ones here - have surfaced via French broadcast material. So we live in good times for Thibaud admirers and I suppose it’s possible to find a greater Thibaud admirer than me – but I rather doubt it.

Regarding the two Saint-Saëns items I think I should repeat here what I said in my review of them on a recent Malibran disc. We are in fact especially fortunate to have the Saint-Saëns concerto because, though closely associated with his music, Thibaud left no commercial recordings of any of the concertos. It would be idle to pretend that this is the Thibaud of old. Recorded a few scant months before his death in an air crash he is very much in decline and those seeking the sensuous tone and the exotically spiced portamenti of the young Thibaud will search in vain because, like many another violinist (and especially those who famously are less than scrupulous about practising) his glory days were over two decades back. The tone is a shadow of its former self, intonation wanders and whilst the portamenti are still quite athletic and evocative his luxurious, once-in-a-lifetime vibrato has slaked alarmingly. His trills are reasonable but not of electric speed and not quite climactic enough. What remains is a sovereign sense of phrasing, his sensitivity in the slow central panel of the short thirteen-minute work, and the romantic nuance he can still manage to impart despite the lack of tonal projection. In the finale section his bowing is still reasonably well sustained with more quick slides and some rather starved notes. In conception he is affectionate and triumphant but one has to take the execution and think back to the gorgeous liquidity of the 1910s and 1920s to imagine quite what he could do with this repertoire. In that sense this is not unlike the later Elman Vanguards – the vestiges of a great player who, albeit quite imperfectly, has something still to teach. In the Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso his lower strings are very much less responsive, the trills slower but there are still plenty of suave finger position changes and a surety of conception. Turning back to his commercial recordings of the piece – with Armour for Pathé and, in the orchestral version, with the Orchestre Symphonique de Paris under Ruhlmann again for Pathé in 1914 – and we find that his vibrancy and tonal allure have long since dissipated by the early 1950s.

The Lalo was taped two months before the Saint-Saëns items, this time in Brussels. By one of those infuriating quirks of recording history he left behind no commercial testament of it (the attempts with Landon Ronald in 1929 and Pierre Monteux in 1930 were never approved for release) and so it’s fortunate that off-air recordings survive. APR now have two such to their name, this Martinon 1953 and the 1941 Ansermet, which is in their double CD set devoted to the violinist. With Martinon he opens slowly and cautiously but soon hits form. There’s plenty of elfin delicacy and pliancy of phrasing and though his tone is a shadow of its former sensual self the Spanishry he finds in the Scherzando has seldom sounded more naturally evocative or playful. As ever he discards the Intermezzo but it’s still bewitching, in spite of all the limitations, to hear how he explores expressive intimacy tinged with a kind of wistful candour in the Andante. The finale is spirited and vital though the trills are not on the button. He is faster in all movements than he had been in 1941 with Ansermet and the reason is technical – like most musicians he would speed up if harried, or fearing himself to be harried, technically, and that is undoubtedly the case here.

Similarly his live 1941 Chausson Poème lasts 16.16 whilst his later commercial 1950 recording with the Lamoureux and Bigot lasts 15.11. That last made an appearance, I believe, on one of those maddeningly over-Cedared Philips issues, all mud and guts and very little music. In 1950 his bowing was compromised and unsteady with a white-ish, thin tone. Here, in 1941, things were much better. Not only is the sound full of depth and body – the 1941 survivals have been excellently treated by Bryan Crimp – but Thibaud shapes things with far greater piquancy and tonal allure and romanticised gesture. This is now the prime Chausson Poème recommendation for Thibaud admirers.

As I said earlier Malibran have issued the two Saint-Saëns items along with some piano-accompanied pieces with Marinus Flipse taped the following day – the same composer’s Havanaise and Mozart’s Rondo from the Violin Sonata No. 26 in B flat K378. Malibran seem to have had access to the studio tapes because they are distinctly brighter and fuller than APR’s, which are presumably from a secondary source. The rest of the Malibran programme consists of generally well-known studio recordings. So my recommendation must be to have both issues. This APR brings us an invaluable Lalo and an essential Chausson and one now has the luxury to add still further to this great musician’s discography.

Jonathan Woolf

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