César FRANCK (1822-1890)
Violin Sonata in A major (1886) [27:33]
Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
Violin Sonata in G minor (1916-17) [12:34]
Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937)
Violin Sonata in G major (1923-27) [17:57]
Shlomo Mintz (violin), Yefim Bronfman (piano)
rec. June 1985, Theatre La Musica, La Chaux-De-Fonds, Switzerland. DDD.

This recording first appeared on Deutsche Grammophon as 415 683-2. Then it was nominated for a Grammy and the Ovation Chamber Music Record of the Year, and actually won the Netherlands' Edison Prize for Best Recording.

I can understand its threefold appeal. First, it’s in the smart programming, which combines three of the finest French violin sonatas written over a period of cultural shift. We start with the late Romanticism of Franck, which is almost Brahmsian in spirit and letter. Then we enter the inter-era twilight of Debussy. The last work by Ravel is very much 20h century. Second, the performances are admirable. Mintz and Bronfman concentrate on the beauty of the music, not on the emotional edge. You might find more heaven-storming versions of the Franck, for example, but few are more elegant and delicate. Bronfman’s piano sound is, as always, like good red wine: deep, dark, and potent. And Mintz’s violin really sings. Last but not least, the recording quality is excellent.

The lengthy Sonata by Franck is virtually monothematic; all its themes grow out of a small motif. Like most Franck’s music, it has a certain didactic air; but here it is less pronounced, due to the lyrical inventiveness. The first movement is essentially a prelude. The performers make it very light, ephemeral, which is aided by recording “from the side”. The violin sings, and the piano is expressive yet gentle. In the tempestuous second movement Mintz’s violin darkens its voice. Together the performers whip up a Romantic storm, though not as manic as in some more unbuttoned performances. It is not overheated: a storm seen from the side. Mintz keeps his violin controlled and civilized. The Recitativo is hushed and pensive; Mintz and Bronfman enliven it with some masterful brushstrokes. Out of it grows Fantasia with its memorable melody. It is elegant and gentle, and the accents are not over-pressed. Over Bronfman’s sad little bells, Mintz soars with angelic lucidity. The sunny finale has a Russian flavor. The musicians start from afar, gradually heating up. Themes from previous movements fly by. Mintz plays very sincerely, without any pretense. The big waves are well powered by Bronfman. The ending is short and effective.

A feeling of unease rules in the first movement of the Sonata by Debussy. This could be a perfect musical counterpart to van Gogh’s Starry Night, with its swirling winds and cold, menacing stars. Bronfman and Mintz enhance this feeling with their uneven tempos and nervous intonations. In the second movement, marked Fantasque et léger (“fantastic and light”), Debussy releases little mischievous pixies. These are night creatures, ephemeral, yet with sharp little nails! The last movement is a light-hearted bravura piece, well articulated by Mintz. It has some Spanish and even Hungarian spice. The two musicians make the music very embossed; they sculpt each segment, so there is never a sign of repetitiveness. The Sonata ends on a bright exclamation mark.

The flow of the first movement of the Sonata by Ravel is unceasing. This is kind of a French Lark Ascending, and, as a French lark should, it is more active and jovial than its British kin. Mintz and Bronfman paint this pastoral landscape with warm colors, and perfectly convey its sensual pleasures. Mintz’s tone-coloring is delicate. Both the composition and the performance serve as an example of fine balance between two contrasting instruments. The second movement is a Blues, strutting and meowing. Over the cat’s paws of Bronfman’s piano, Mintz imitates the slides and glides of the jazz instruments. The mood is relaxed and a little nostalgic. The finale is a virtuosic moto perpetuo with some more jazzy strokes. Mintz steers lightly and precisely through this filigree whirlwind, while Bronfman masterfully accentuates the music. They keep monotony at bay.

This disc will appeal to those who prefer to hear the lyrical rather than dramatic side of this music. The performance is not particularly “French-sounding”. This does not pose any problems in the Franck sonata, which is exquisitely beautiful here. This is probably the most graceful, attractive and loveable account of this sonata I’ve heard, compared to some other performances that might invoke more cerebral feelings of admiration and appreciation, but not love. The pairing is intelligent: the works are not too similar, but are close enough in spirit to provide an hour of pleasing listening. The recording quality is very good. For the liner-note, Malcolm MacDonald provides excellent musical analysis (English only). Nothing is said about the performers, though. Bearing in mind also the Brilliant price, this is a very attractive reissue.

Oleg Ledeniov

Will appeal to those who prefer to hear the lyrical rather than dramatic side of this music.