French Cello Sonatas
Gabriel PIERNÉ (1863 - 1937)
Sonata in F sharp minor for cello and piano Op.46 (1922) [21:15]
Nadia BOULANGER (1887 - 1979)
Trois pièces pour cello et piano (1914) [6:45]
Vincent D’INDY (1851 - 1931)
Lied for cello and piano Op.19 (1884) [7:52]
Sonata for cello and piano (1924-25) [18:23]
Gabriel PIERNÉ (1863 - 1937)
Expansion Op.23 (1888) [2:07]
Caprice Op.16 (1887) [2:48]
Nicolas Altstaedt (cello); José Gallardo (piano)
rec. Potton Hall, Westleton, Suffolk England, 18-20 August 2008
NAXOS 8.572105 [59:36] 

The three composers whose music is on offer here share the fact that their lives (if not their compositional careers) straddle the second half of the 19th Century through to the early/middle of the 20th. It is particularly interesting to note that in the case of Nadia Boulanger, although she lived until 1979 she gave up composition in the 1920s. Excluding for a moment the three shorter works presented the two sonatas date from the 1920s and the Boulanger pieces from 1914. But there is little of the Brave New World in the musical language here. Both D’Indy and Pierné use a musical language that looks back to the Belle Époque. Gabriel Pierné is a composer who remains very much at the periphery of most people’s musical knowledge. Apart from his lighter orchestral works like March of the Little Lead Soldiers and the Marche des petits Faunes his original compositions remain resolutely little-known. As a conductor he was responsible for such notable premieres as Stravinsky’s Firebird for the Ballets Russes in 1910 so clearly he was at the centre of artistic activity in Paris in the early years of the last century. Which makes the resolute Franckisms of the 1922 Cello Sonata in F sharp minor all the more surprising. Clearly the cyclic tonal idiom was where he was most comfortable. This is a one movement work that plays for some twenty minutes. Within that span are well defined sections and the whole work is patently well crafted. That being said it resolutely refuses to stick in my memory and I’m not wholly sure why that should be.

Cellist Nicolas Altstaedt and pianist José Gallardo are both committed advocates so it is not for the lack of their efforts. Altstaedt is a winner of an International competition and has technique to spare. That being said, I have to say that I don’t respond much to the style in which he plays any of this programme. He seems to prefer a muscular and quite strenuous approach that I find does not lie easily with the soulful aspects of the music here. The opening is beautifully poised but very soon Altstaedt opts for a preferred fast vibrato and roisinous approach. This is at odds with Gallardo’s piano playing which is far more ‘placed’. I do not have access to any scores nor have I previously encountered these pieces but instinctively I find his approach heavy-handed. I could imagine exactly that approach paying great dividends in other repertoire but not here. Try half-way into the Pierné Sonata at about 11:30 - powerful playing and technically in complete control it just feels too ‘big’ to me. Even when the mood quickly subsides little more than a minute later I feel a cooler, more floated sound would have been better suited. Don’t get me wrong though, this is an approach I’m sure many will enjoy because it is well played - it is just that the choices do not work for me.

I have to admit that my basic lack of pleasure in the chosen style persists for most of the recital. As mentioned before, the Nadia Boulanger Trois pièces date from 1914 and certainly occupy a similar sound-world to that of her extraordinary sister Lili’s Nocturne for violin (or flute) and piano. The opening movement - Modéré - starts really promisingly with a gentle song beautifully sung but again I find Altstaedt’s preference for heavy accentuation totally at odds with the style in general and my understanding of this genre - he really digs into the notes at 1:30. The reflective playing is beautiful and he is very willing to pare his tone away stunningly as the movement ends. The second movement benefits from a generally gentler style although I find it curious how the speed and intensity of the vibrato seems to be closely allied to dynamic and register. The higher and louder he goes the faster the vibrato gets. The final movement is marked Vite et nerveusement rhythmé - and again for all the perfect technical address I find the chosen style at odds with the ‘nerveusement’ instruction - this is aggressive not nervous playing. Altstaedt allows some of his pizzicati to ‘slap’ in a Bartókian way which is surely not idiomatic for French music of this period. He does the same later in the D’Indy Sonata which I find equally disconcerting. Things start well, another clear reflection of the technique on display but rather than allowing lines to unfold lyrically Altstaedt prefers to accentuate key notes within phrases that for me destroys the musical line. These bulges occur within 26 seconds of the opening and undermine the essential simplicity of the approach. Don’t forget D’Indy was one of the founders of the Schola Cantorum in the 1890s and much of his musical aesthetic centred on the musical forms of the past. Hence this Sonata features baroque suite titles of Gavotte en rondeau, Air, and Gigue. Not that the listener should expect for a moment simple pastiche, rather modern(ish!) music imbued with the spirit of an earlier age. The playing should reflect this. In this performance I feel a tension between the written note and the played one. Pianist Gallardo achieves a more appropriately even and limpid style and I enjoyed his playing considerably more than that of his colleague. Again I should stress I have not seen the scores so there might well be markings there to justify every accent; even if that is the case I would feel them to be over-stressed. This continues in each movement with the playing belying the subsidiary movement markings; tranquillement for the second movement and gaiment for the Finale. The latter in particular is positively aggressive - try track 9 1:30 onwards for more explosive pizzicati and heavy accentuation. The disc concludes with two further short Pierné pieces. Both are pleasant but would not be the main reason for buying this disc. Similar performance traits are evident. By now I am sure it will be clear that I find this a disappointing disc. I’ve wanted to avoid all the clichés about Gallic wit and charm but I can’t help but come to the conclusion that this repertoire would be better served by a more elegant approach. Not that there is not muscle and sinew in this music because there is but it should lie beneath the surface.

Producer/Engineer Michael Ponder - the player on one of the great viola recital discs of English music ever in his alter ego of Dame Avril Piston - the disc is called Heartache on Guild GMCD7275 - knows this venue well (it was the site of Dame Avril’s great triumph) and uses all his experience of music from the inside to produce a beautifully warm and balanced sound at the Potton Hall venue. That being said Altstaedt is the dominant personality here and again I feel this unbalances the overall effect. So, overall a curious disc, interesting - if not revelatory - repertoire, well engineered and produced, typically lucid notes from Keith Anderson, lovely piano, technically superb cello playing but in a chosen style that leaves me totally cold. Best you decide for yourselves!

Nick Barnard