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In Memoriam Jacques Thibaud (1880-1953)
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)

Violin Concerto Op.61
Orchestre de Chambre de Lausanne/Victor Desarzens, recorded live in 1950
Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)

Violin Concerto No.4 K218
Concertgebouw/Eduard van Beinum, recorded live in 1948
Edouard LALO (1823-1892)

Symphonie espagnole Op.21 (1873) (omitting Intermezzo)
Sinfonie Orchestre das Hessischen Rundfunks/Winfried Zillig, recorded in the radio studio, 1951
César FRANCK (1822-1890)

Violin Sonata (1886)
Jean Laforge (piano) recorded in a studio broadcast, 1952
Jacques Thibaud (violin) with accompaniments as above
TAHRA TAH 499-500 [2 CDs 67.43 +53.54]


I well remember the day I bought my first live Thibaud recording – a single cassette that arrived from America containing his three live Mozart Concerto performances in Paris with Enescu conducting in 1951. The failing technique was balanced by the untainted instinct for Mozartian phrasing and the pleasure remained intact. For many years afterwards that was the extent of the live Thibaud I knew to have survived. But how wrong, how badly wrong I was because now I seem to write about little else – Live Thibaud seems to arrive monthly through my letterbox.

Hot on the heels of Malibran and APR is this Tahra, which I believe was published after the former and before the latter. The big news is that it contains a work previously absent from Thibaud’s discography, the Beethoven Concerto. It also includes yet another Symphonie espagnole to swell the ranks of live performances (he left, amazingly, no commercial disc of it though at least two were recorded but never issued), a Mozart Concerto No. 4 – again no commercial recording but the Enescu will have to do – and the Franck Sonata (two recordings, both with Cortot). This is then a major release by anyone’s standards and particularly so in the string world. Given Thibaud’s famously small repertoire we are moving toward a position where a significant amount has been captured for posterity but may I urge archivists, private hoarders, radio companies, off-air enthusiasts and other interested parties to try to locate any example of his performance of the Mozart Sinfonia Concertante with violist Maurice Vieux, which may yet prove to be one of the classic accounts.

But let’s see what we have here. The Beethoven is a poignant and affecting example of Thibaud’s playing. The orchestra is certainly not inspiring and Thibaud makes a shaky start with the difficult broken octave entry but once past that we can luxuriate in some of his piquant slides, his still reasonably nourished (though not electric) trill, and his consummate musicianship. It’s true of course as I have written previously about his post-1950 performances that tonally he was no longer the giant of old. There are times when his tone sounds distinctly starved – and equally that he is forwardly balanced and thus obscures orchestral counter-themes and wind lines. Also, on the debit side, the orchestra lacks heft in the tuttis and the recording dulls percussion and lower strings. All true – but the survival of this performance outweighs all the negatives – and we can listen to his intensely provocative rallentandi and accelerandi, his limpid phrasing of the first movement second subject and his own cadenza, a rather weird and vivid one at that. In the slow movement he is delicate and withdrawn, his tone attaining a degree of affecting sweetness and the finale shows him exploring some elfin phrasing, crystalline and sensual, as well, and ending – in spite of the booming acoustic spread, in triumph. Thibaud was seventy at the time, an age when most violinists have either retired or are fully into decline (we except ageless titans like Milstein) so one should not expect the glorious playing of the 1920s but this is still a wonderful example of his playing in the greatest concerto written for his instrument.

The first disc couples the Beethoven with the Fourth Mozart Concerto, recorded in concert the previous year in Amsterdam with the Concertgebouw and van Beinum. There are some scuffs on the acetates but the sound is otherwise good. Van Beinum sets a brisk tempo and Thibaud makes a very, very nervous start but warms up appreciably and quickly, if a little scratchily in the cadenza. Thibaud was simply one of the most natural and effective Mozart players of his generation and it’s a privilege to hear his exceptional phrasing in the slow movement, his perfectly placed peaks of those phrases, the lyric line presented with sensual intimacy. The finale is bracing and characterful with real flair.

Comparing this 1951 Symphonie espagnole with the 1941 Ansermet and the 1953 Martinon (both on APR) has been profitable – there’s also one with Stokowski in 1947. The sound in the studios of Hessischen Rundfunks is rather blatant and cold with a brittle, glassy quality that doesn’t flatter the orchestra or the soloist. In terms of tempo and tempo relationships this performance could almost be a carbon copy of the Martinon and they are both quicker than the earlier wartime performance with the Suisse Romande when his technique was that much more secure. Now he has tightened the tempi to limit physical problems, left and right hand (see the occasional problems with bowing that he has in the Allegro non troppo opening movement). He’s not quite as sparkling in the Scherzando second movement as he was to be a couple of years later but as ever he omits the Intermezzo (Russian players routinely did this but not always Franco-Belgians). His Franck Sonata with Jean Laforge is a fine adjunct to those two famous Cortot traversals, the first an acoustic in 1923 and the second an electric remake six years later. Of the two the 1923 set is the better; indeed it’s one of the great recordings of the work on disc. Thirty years later Thibaud makes predictably fewer portamanti though he makes quite a few but his ravishing diminuendi are still a thing of wonder though the tone has thinned and once or twice intonation wanders. He reserves greatest weight of tonal colour and portamanti for the Allegro section even though there is some rhythmic instability at the end. He’s faster in the Recitativo fantastico in 1952 than he was in 1923 and whilst the end of the Sonata is a bit approximate it’s still a real experience to hear Thibaud in a work so closely identified with him.

This gatefold double comes with some beautifully printed photographs and an affectionate note from Gérald Drieu. In view of the Beethoven, in particular, I think this is a set of high significance and Tahra are to be congratulated for making these documents available.

Jonathan Woolf


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