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César FRANCK (1822-1890)
Violin Sonata (1886)
Camille SAINT-SAËNS (1835-1921)

Violin Sonata No. 1 op.75 (1885)
Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937)

Violin Sonata (1923-27)
Sarah Chang (violin)
Lars Vogt (piano)
Recorded at Potton Hall, Westleton, Suffolk, May 2003. DDD
EMI CLASSICS 5 57679 2 [68:46]

 

By my reckoning this is American-born violinist Sarah Chang’s eighteenth album for the EMI Classics label; not bad going for a young person in their early twenties. If I remember correctly, Chang’s latest release in 2003 was the Dvorak Violin Concerto with the LSO under Sir Colin Davis coupled with a version of the Piano Quintet. This time the prolific and talented Ms. Chang has teamed up with German-born pianist Lars Vogt, in a selection of violin sonatas from the pens of three composers that are French either by birth or adoption. The two instrumentalists are very much a team although to look at the four photographs on this release with the attractive violinist featured on all of them and the pianist on only two, it is clear that EMI are marketing Ms. Chang as a ‘sexy violin babe’ rather than Lars Vogt and the music. The author of the booklet notes links the composers of the three featured violin sonatas with a character from Marcel Proust’s novel À la recherche du temps perdu. This all seems somewhat contrived and the link rather tenuous. It would have been preferable to have provided more information on the works or three featured composers.

The Violin Sonata by Belgium born composer César Franck is a war-horse of the chamber music repertoire and remains for performers a hard nut to crack. Composed as a wedding present for his friend, fellow-countryman and violin virtuoso Eugène Ysaÿe, the four movement Violin Sonata is an epic work and is regarded by many as the finest violin sonata in all French music. Personally I would go so far as to say that the work has worthy claims to be the finest violin sonata ever written; certainly in the Romantic repertoire. Yes, Franck was a Belgian by birth although he is usually referred to as French owing to the amount of time he lived there. Without checking, there is every chance that the sonata was composed in France.

Franck’s Violin Sonata is a work that runs the range of emotions from unbridled passion to sublime serenity and successfully employs cyclical treatment of themes. The violin soars over the piano part with the most uplifting of melodies. The complex and delightful echoing finale, with the violin and piano parts playing off each other, is justly famous. In the first movement Allegretto ben moderato I was particularly impressed by the way Chang and Vogt adroitly contrast the contemplative mood with the required tension. There is ravishing and characterful playing from the duo in the second movement Allegro with the substantial indulgence and passion in the final movement Allegretto poco mosso. The playing from Chang and Vogt is warm and romantic. This heart-on-sleeve approach, with more use of vibrato than I am used to, is one that may prove rather syrupy for some palates.

The now famous recording and magnificent and exhilarating account of the Violin Sonata by violinist Kyung-Wha Chung and pianist Radu Lupu on Decca 460 006-2 which is coupled with the Debussy Violin Sonata and the Chausson Poème remains my premier recommendation.

Saint-Saëns wrote his First Violin Sonata in 1885 whilst at the height of his compositional powers which was around the time of the Carnival of the Animals suite and the Symphony No. 3 ‘Organ’. By the time of the First Violin Sonata Saint-Saëns was a most experienced composer for the violin having written his three violin concertos as well as the celebrated Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso.

The responsive performances from Chang and Vogt convey the composer’s renowned clarity of texture and sureness of technique in the opening Allegro agitato and the duo are both exhilarating and convincing in the brilliant Allegro molto conclusion.

This splendid new recording of the first Saint-Saëns Violin Sonata from Chang and Vogt with its increased sense of engagement and extra tenderness is now my leading recommendation. However I would not wish to be without the version from the partnership of Dong-Suk Kang and Pascal Devoyon from 1989 on Naxos 8.550276. This is generously coupled with impressive versions of the Debussy, Ravel and Poulenc violin sonatas.

Composition of his Violin Sonata occupied Ravel intermittently for some five years. The sonata clearly reflects the fashion of his day. In particular it deploys Ravel’s ‘take’ on the ‘Blues’ throughout the second movement as well as the occasional the use of ‘Jazzy’ rhythms. Our performers exhibit their considerable virtuosity to excellent advantage with considerable expression and panache throughout the varying moods of this work.

Sarah Chang and Lars Vogt offer fine performances of the Ravel Violin Sonata but my first-choice recommendation for their refined authority, colour, innate sense of spontaneous music-making and marvellous sound too is the version from Renaud Capucon and Franck Braley on Virgin Classics 5 4549 2. This all-Ravel disc is coupled with excellent versions of the Piano Trio, the Sonata for Violin and Cello and the 1897 single movement student work the Sonate Posthume for violin and piano.

Gifted soloists Sarah Chang and Lars Vogt prove themselves first-rate chamber performers and can be justly proud of this EMI Classics recording. Aided by warm, bright and clear recorded sound with a broad dynamic range, the passionate and sumptuously Romantic approach of the duo is very much in keeping with these works. They come across splendidly, if this style of interpretation is to your taste. A first-class and highly enjoyable recording.

Michael Cookson



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