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Every day we post 10 new Classical CD and DVD reviews. A free weekly summary is available by e-mail. MusicWeb is not a subscription site. To keep it free please purchase discs through our links.

  Classical Editor Rob Barnett    



Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937)
Violin Sonata +
Piano Trio #
Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)

Violin Sonata +
Cello Sonata *
Arthur Grumiaux, violin +
Istvan Hajdu, piano +
Maurice Gendron, cello *
Jean Francaix, piano *
Beaux Arts Trio #
Recorded 1962 (Ravel Violin Sonata) 1963 (Debussy Violin Sonata) 1964 (Debussy Cello Sonata) 1966 (Debussy Trio)
ELOQUENCE PHILIPS 468 306-2 [68’02]

This disc of recordings originally released within a four-year period, between 1962 and 1966, enshrines some of the very greatest performances of their kind. Grumiaux’s partnership with Istvan Hajdu bore remarkable fruit; Gendron and Francaix were nonpareil sonata partners and the Beaux Arts Trio - Guilet, Greenhouse and Pressler - were at the top of their form. It makes for one of the most comprehensively satisfying couplings in the catalogue and, nearly forty years on, every bit as desirable as on first issue.

The Violin Sonata receives a reading that fuses the aristocratic with the more visceral. Grumiaux’s bleached tone in the first movement – withdrawn and interior – is entirely apposite and never expressively exaggerated. Hajdu’s playing is rhythmically acute and pointed – listen to the passage at 5’20 when balancing with the violin’s lower strings and accommodating Ravel’s quirkier writing. There is some succulent but not abandoned playing in the Blues, the second movement, and their sense of the work’s continuities ensure a performance that is integrated rather than outrageous, complete rather than fractured into individual felicities. I especially admired the tremendous vigour of the finale without at any moment sacrificing beauty of tone or steadiness of purpose. This is real sonata playing and still one of the very best available accounts.

Grumiaux’s elevated intellectual profile is put to exalted use in the Debussy Sonata. He has a quicksilver response to the music’s twists and turns and an alertness to the necessary momentum in the first movement. He is thus forward moving but flexible with a fast vibrato and multi variegated tonal response at once apposite and unostentatious. Listen at 2.15 to about as extravagant a portamento as he ever made on disc. If you want to hear fluent and incisive duo playing listen to Grumiaux and Hajdu in the Intermède where understanding of motivic details and larger structure reigns supreme. So too in the finale; just the right weight of bow pressure from the violinist at 1.40 and the optimum fluidity and fluency from the pianist. A noble account of a masterpiece. Time is right for a reappraisal of the Gendron-Francaix partnership, in my view every bit as exalted an instrumentalist-composer duo as the better known and more fêted Rostropovich-Britten. I recently reviewed a performance of the Debussy Cello Sonata by a celebrated contemporary duo so narcissistic as to be painful. Here, at a somewhat steadier tempo, but not by much, Gendron and Francaix show how inflection, nuance, tonal variety and cogency bring rewards far outstripping the mere superficialities of the moment. There is such expressive propriety to their playing. In the pizzicato episode of the Serenade’s opening everything is at the service of the music and the gradations of tone in the subsequent development are of sovereign subtlety. And such wit – real wit, not supposed Gallic "wit" – in the slides and phrase endings, such triumphant understanding of the work’s architecture and meaning, such involved nonchalance. In the finale their sense of anticipation and release is second to none. There is never any vulgar overemphasis in tempo relation. Gendron’s tone colours here are infinitely attractive and subtle and the whole performance a triumph of selfless musicality. The Beaux Arts Trio have since re-recorded the Trio, a performance I’ve not heard but which is greatly admired. Their 1966 traversal is quite outstanding. The ebb and flow is maintained in the tricky opening movement, from the elfin to the more dramatic outbursts; there is a sense of controlled passion in the Pantoum whilst the affectionate understanding they bring to the third movement Passacaille is remarkable enough were their phrasing not so utterly right. The trio’s ensemble in the finale, with the piano’s incendiary little bass voicings, is remarkable. Well-balanced, climactic, cultivated – in profile not unlike Grumiaux’s own sense of elevated music making - the Beaux Arts are special exponents of the Trio.

As a recital of major French chamber works this disc doubtless has its rivals; others will be in more opulent acoustics, others will have more garish cover art work, others will be more widely publicised; others will be more assiduously promoted. None will be better. There is simply no substitute for this kind of elevated music making. This is quite simply a superb disc.

Jonathan Woolf

 

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