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In The Shade of Forests
Impressions d’enfance Op.28 (1940) [22.01]
Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937)
Tzigane – Rapsodie de concert for violin and luthéal (original version) (1924) [10.41]
Sonata Op. posthumous (1897) [12.37]
Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
Violin Sonata (1916-17) [13.14]
Nocturne et Scherzo (1882) – re-adaptation by Phillipe Graffin [4.11]
Il pleure dans mon Coeur – transcribed Arthur Hartmann in 1908 and 1943 [3.04]
La fille aux cheveux de lin - transcribed Arthur Hartmann in 1910 [2.27]
Minstrels - transcribed by Claude Debussy in 1914 [2.22]
Beau Soir - transcribed Arthur Hartmann in 1941 [2.14]
Phillipe Graffin (violin)
Claire Désert (piano and luthéal)
Recorded at Doopsegezinde Kerk, Deventer and Musical Instrument Museum (Tzigane) September 2004
AVIE AV2059 [73.11]

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A fascinating disc. Not only do we have a splendid performance of Enescu’s infinitely suggestive and malleable masterpiece Impressions d’enfance but we also get a mini-tribute to Arthur Hartmann, an important figure in the later Debussy circle, whose arrangements have enriched the repertoire for a century or so now. And if that were not enough we hear the remarkable, extraordinary, strains of the luthéal – and not any old luthéal either – in Tzigane. Of that, more in a moment. But let’s start with that Enescu.

Enescu wrote Impressions d’enfance in his native Rumania in 1940. It is a Joycean masterpiece of colour and incident, a single day in a child’s life recollected and compressed, ranging from gypsy fiddlers, beggars in the street, a shimmering water pool, cuckoo clock and crepuscular fall of night with its ominous storm. Enescu premiered it with Lipatti in 1942. Beginning with solo fiddle the work fuses sophisticated impressionistic devices with rawer native material – his Third Sonata is always in the back of ones mind – but the influence of Ravel and of Szymanowski is apparent as well. The interior and the reflective are established in the second section and the high lying glint Enescu evokes is notably Szymanowskian. Bird song is summoned through harmonics and the astounding sonorities that Enescu generates, at once experimental and yet profoundly rooted in violinistic lore and technical expression, are captivating, narrative, colour-laden and manage to be intensely descriptive.

The Hartmann tribute is well explored in Graffin’s own exceptionally full and well illustrated booklet notes. This is the kind of background biographical material that illuminates an issue such as this and gives it lasting force. The American fiddle player first met Debussy in 1908 and produced a series of transcriptions, three of which are here. The most famous is La fille aux cheveux de lin transcribed in 1910 and here played with a languorous expression that, whilst definitely slower, reminded me more closely than any recording or performance I’ve ever heard of Jacques Thibaud’s immortally seductive and pain-flecked 78 of the 1920s. It’s that good – and I never thought anyone would have the sensitivity to go back to that tradition and salute it in this way. Beau Soir differs from the more familiar Heifetz transcription and I prefer it. Graffin and Claire Désert also take on the late Sonata. They take a meditative and subtle approach, one that relies on delicate tracery and shifts of colour and weight of bow pressure. From a slightly italicised start Graffin employs a gamut of fragile sounding wisps, fine diminuendi and plenty of contrasts (not least in the Intermède). Their approach is measured and introspective and it works on its own terms though I’m bound to add that, whilst I appreciate their view, it’s not one I find easy to accept. A whole school of Franco-Belgian players from Debussy’s time or immediately after played this work entirely differently and it’s a lost art. No one now plays this sonata with the intense, febrile animation of Thibaud, Alfred Dubois or Francescatti. They were all quick – around eleven and a half minutes, all of them – and that quicksilver brittleness seems to have leached out of chamber playing of Debussy’s music in favour of a rather conformist romanticism. So I feel Graffin and Désert can sound melodramatic and not dramatic in the first movement where they can amble and they don’t make the most of the conjunctions and eruptions of the finale, ones that the three performers already cited so audibly did. Still, you will find this broadly sympathetic playing and should ignore my strictures. What you can’t ignore though is Graffin’s closely miked sniffing. This is especially audible in this work where the anticipatory sniff may well diminish your pleasure. I’m pretty inured to such things, spending a great deal of time with acoustic 78s, but even I found it a liability.

The Ravel component of the disc includes the early 1897 sonata, a delightful example of Fauré’s influence and full of compact, elastic lyricism. The duo manages to corral the slight degree of formlessness and play with real charm and élan. Now for the luthéal in Tzigane. This is something you must hear. There have been examples of this instrument on disc before, including a recording of Tzigane by Daniel Hope and Sebastian Knauer in Hope’s album East Meets West. Here however Désert plays the same instrument Ravel used and the one, now in the Museum of Modern Instruments in Brussels, that Beveridge Webster used when he and Samuel Dushkin gave the world premiere performance of this version, in October 1924 (the premiere having been given of course by Jelly d’Aranyi). The luthéal is a kind of prepared piano and can imitate the cimbalom through the use of special stops. The Brussels machine is a half size 1919 Pleyel – the Hope disc featured a modern full size Steinway - and the range of hallucinatory colours generated is fantastic, at times like a guitar, a harmonica, with the weirdest tick-tocking sounds and much else. The performance is comparatively lightly bowed and reflective. Perhaps with the luthéal on board it doesn’t need to be the heavy-duty Ginette Neveu French style of Tzigane playing.

So yes, a fascinating disc. It’s not one I shall easily forget. Maybe the sniffing will cause problems on repeated listening and I part company with some interpretative decisions. But this is a disc brimming with dedication and admirable engagement. The Enescu is not the only version in the catalogue but it’s played with charismatic intensity, the Ravel is wonderfully different and the Hartmann-Debussy a fine salute from one violinist to another. This is a multi-hued, multi-layered disc. Give it a go.

Jonathan Woolf

Kevin Sutton has also listened to this disc

Avie, by the sheer consistent quality of their releases is certain soon to become a major player in the classical industry. We can only hope that their release schedule, now only a modest two or three discs per month, will increase as their sales go up.

This outstanding disc of violin and piano works is sort of a classical concept album, and it is a concept that works perfectly. The artists have chosen three composers whose careers were interwoven, whose styles have great similarity but are at the same time strikingly original, and whose music is as close to sheer perfection as has been achieved since Old Bach. And the sound of gypsy violinists, whose unique and haunting music-making appealed greatly to all three composers, holds the musical program together.

Specifically, the recital explores the composer’s relationships with three violinists: Enescu himself, Jelly d’Aranyi and Arthur Hartmann, who in turn were greatly influenced by the Hungarian gypsy fiddler Radicz

George Enescu, the Romanian-born violinist, pianist, conductor and composer was one of the most prodigious talents of his time. He lived to witness tremendous upheaval and revolution not only in the world, but in music as well. Classmates with Ravel, the two remained lifelong friends. He also had an important professional relationship with Bartók. The programmatic Impressions d’enfance is a musical depiction of a day in the life of the composer as a child, recalled in adult life. I have never met a work by Enescu that I didn’t like and this is no exception. Ten brief sections long, the music is hauntingly evocative of the moods and feelings that a child might have had encountering a world in which most everything was new. From the sound of the gypsy fiddler, to sad compassion for a poor beggar, this little day trip is fascinating from the first note.

Our duo plays with intensity and empathy for both the characters and the composer, and this is a strikingly beautiful and brilliant performance.

Time though, to get this thought out of the way: I have said it before, and I will not stop saying it until I eradicate this problem from the musical earth. The violin - and any other stringed instrument for that matter - does not require wind to make it sound. Mr. Graffin falls victim to the horrid tendency of many a violinist to sniff and snort with the onset of every phrase. This wind ‘groping’ is audible in many of the tracks. Contrary to what may be the common wisdom in string studios the world over, this habit is not artistic. It is pretentious and annoying, and does not serve the music in any way other than to draw needless attention to the player. If you are "artistic and passionate" it will show in your playing. We do not need to have your every inhalation documented for posterity. Was that too strong?

Now, let us return to the rest of the program and its superb performances.

Composed for the Hungarian violinist Jelly d’Aranyi, the Tzigane, was first scored for violin and the luthéal, an instrument that was invented by Belgian George Cloetens. It is mounted inside a smallish Pleyel grand piano with a particularly intimate sound, and the attachment produces a tone very similar to a hammered dulcimer. Ravel attempted to use the instrument in the orchestrated version of the Tzigane, but he was unable to make it heard over the orchestra. The original luthéal for which Ravel composed survives in Brussels’ Musical Instrument Museum and was used for this recording.

The Sonata, not to be confused with the famous jazz-influenced work from 1929, was only discovered in 1975 and is of a quite different character than its Gershwinesque successor.

Both works receive superb performances, passionately played, beautifully phrased. These two musicians were born to play together; their sympathy for each other as an ensemble is uncanny. Graffin’s lush, even lusty tone is well matched by Désert’s fleet fingers. Never outshining the other, they are a true duo, and their music-making is perfectly enthralling.

To conclude the program, Graffin and Desert take us through a journey of Debussy’s complete works for violin and piano, three of which are transcriptions by the violinist Arthur Hartmann, whom Debussy greatly admired, and for whom the Sonate was written. The song transcriptions came to be favored over their originals by the composer. The only strange one is Beau soir, whose melody differs greatly from the original song, although it is also quite recognizable.

Again, the performances are nearly flawless throughout. Perhaps what struck me most is just how well Graffin and Désert are able, without the benefit of words, to conjure up such vivid images. These are all very atmospheric, moody, thought-provoking works of art, and if perhaps the listener is not in the same dream world as the musicians, so be it. They manage to take us off to a realm of wonder that is pure joy to experience.

As usual, Avie’s production values are of the highest order. Excellent, thorough and fascinating program notes, beautiful packaging and a concept that is above reproach. This is a must-have for all lovers of violin playing. Buy it soon, and prepare to be transported, transmuted, transfixed and transfigured!

Kevin Sutton

The Avie Catalogue

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