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Jonathan Woolf
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César FRANCK (1822-1890)
Violin Sonata in A Major (1886) [27:44]
Camille SAINT-SAËNS (1835-1921)
Sonata for Violin and Piano No. 1 in D minor Op. 75 (1885) [24:00]
Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937)
Violin Sonata in G major (1923-27) [17:03]
Sarah Chang (violin)
Lars Vogt (piano)
rec. Potton Hall, Suffolk, May 2003
EMI CLASSICS 2081222 [68:46]
Experience Classicsonline

This recording is now five years old and is reissued in the ‘Encore’ or ‘Nipper Collection’ – take your pick. Nipper’s on the front and ‘another lower price bracket go-round’ is the principle behind its reappearance in the marketplace. I’ve nothing against this. These are generally well played performances, best in the Ravel, worst in the Franck and middling in the Saint-Saëns.

Best to get the Franck out of the way first in the circumstances. The balance is suspect with the piano often in front covering the violin. Partly this is also Vogt’s fault. One appreciates the dilemma for a sonata partner in this of all works. The violin has the graceful melodies but the pianist shoulders much of the considerable technical and textual difficulty. The solution is not to play out quite so dramatically as does Vogt because it unbalances still further an already unbalanced perspective. In addition the dynamics – from both - are inclined to be self-regarding and Chang’s solutions to the problems posed by the second movement are smeary in the exposed emotive passages. Throughout the Recitative Chang’s line is rather unsteady and her tone not particularly graceful; her instincts here are unbending, cosmopolitan, very much on the surface. Vogt forces when no other solution presents; the finale ends as a damp squib. Altogether it’s one of the least Franco-Belgian performances of this work I can recall. Not much to commend it, unfortunately.

The Saint-Saëns is a lot better - though even here there’s a feeling of something aloof in Chang’s phrasing, a decided feeling that things are being read through and not absorbed into the stylistic bloodstream of her performance. Moments of virtuoso excitement are not reflected in comparable lyric phraseology and the result is a curiously unmoving and uninvolving reading, for all the panache the two display – as before rather too much for comfort sometimes.

It’s only when they play Ravel that they sound remotely at home. What is it about the Ravel that suits them as the other brace of sonatas did not? I suspect something of the work’s aloofness appeals to them, its stylistic games playing, its questionable sincerity. When relieved of the demands to deliver romantic effusiveness we find, despite the endemic balance problems, a finely tuned, occasionally acerbic reading in which the partners sound sympathetically compatible. It’s not the most alluring Ravel I’ve ever heard but it does exert its own pull.

Which doesn’t advance us very far. One out of three is something of a miss I suppose.

Jonathan Woolf



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