Rare French works for violin and orchestra
Gabriel FAURÉ (1845-1924)
Violin Concerto in D minor, Op. 14 (1878-80) [15:46]
Camille SAINT-SAËNS (1835-1921)
Morceau de concert, Op. 62 (1880) [10:27]
Édouard LALO (1823-1892)
Fantaisie norvégienne (1878) [14:01]
Ernest GUIRAUD (1837-1892)
Caprice (1884) [11:48]
Édouard LALO
Guitarre, Op. 28 (arr. Gabriel Pierné) [3:40]
Joseph CANTELOUBE (1879-1957)
Poème (1918, 1937–8) [15:29]
Philippe Graffin (violin)
Ulster Orchestra/Thierry Fischer
rec. June 2001, Ulster Hall, Belfast, United Kingdom
First released in March 2002 as CDA67294

This is exactly the kind of disc that Hyperion has perfected over many years. Originally released roughly a decade ago to considerable acclaim it is now re-released on their budget Helios label. Excellence of this calibre available at bargain price makes it all but compulsory for anyone interested in rare repertoire for the violin who missed it first time around.

Ten years down the line I imagine one’s appreciation of the qualities of this disc has if anything increased. The Ulster Orchestra are recorded all too rarely these days. Gone are the days when they were a house orchestra for Chandos with a new disc appearing most months. They are in typically excellent form here and engineer Simon Eadon makes the most of the glorious Ulster Hall, Belfast. To my ear it remains one of the most consistently satisfying recording venues allowing recording companies to capture performances in a rich and full acoustic which is none the less realistic without the cavernous quality some venues possess. Conductor Thierry Fischer has not gone onto to have as successful a recording career as his predecessor in Ulster Yan Pascal Tortelier. But on the evidence here he is more than a safe pair of hands getting his orchestra to play with real sympathy and bags of character. All of the works here are skilfully orchestrated so the players have plenty of opportunities to display their considerable skills. When the writing becomes lush and full – as in the Canteloube – the sound it simply gorgeous.

Quite deliberately I have left mentioning the soloist on a disc of concertante works until the third paragraph. I wanted to leave the best until last. Philippe Graffin is in imperious form – his style and technique perfectly attuned to this repertoire. Which brings me to another thought related to the last decade. It strikes me that the last ten years or so has seen an increasing entrenchment of the Russian/American school of violin playing to the detriment of other styles. The absorption of Russian émigrés into the cultural life of America is a well-known and much to be praised fact. As teachers they brought with them the technique and philosophy of their own Russian masters. Over time this has become the predominant indeed pre-eminent style of string playing. It can be hugely exciting and is never less than impressive. There is a danger to my ears though that it is rapidly becoming the global aspirational norm for young virtuosos. This style is characterised by the big dramatic sound, powerful projection, marked vibrato and a rock-solid technique. All of which can rather overwhelm great tracts of the repertoire. Returning to Graffin’s playing he gives nothing in technique let alone poise or musicality to this school of playing but instead adds a grace and elegance which fits the music like the proverbial glove.

Graffin contributes a very good liner-note in which he thanks a colleague for introducing him to the music of Ernest Guiraud and Joseph Canteloube. Excellent though the whole disc is you can’t help thinking that it was these two works around which the rest of programme was built. Gabriel Fauré’s Concerto still comes as something of a surprise for the listener expecting the chaste sound-world of the Requiem. Still a rarity in the recorded catalogue the only other version I know is the world premiere recording released on ASV by Rodolfo Bonucci conducted by Enrique Bátiz using the Orquesta Filarmonica de la Ciudad de Mexico. That was part of an all-Fauré programme and whilst good this is better. The composer was building on the success of his early Violin Sonata No.1 but left the concerto incomplete lacking a finale. Along the way the score of the second movement Andante has been lost so all we are left to hear today is the opening movement. There is much truly beautiful playing from all departments but I can’t help feeling Fauré was right not to waste time completing this work in a style that was ultimately a blind alley for him. Too often it sounds as if he is trying self-consciously to work within the confines of first movement sonata-form. Interestingly the next work is the abortive first movement of a concerto too. In this case as an alternative to the existing opening section of the Saint-Saëns B minor Concerto Op.61. If you need an example of what I mean about Graffin’s superbly refined playing try the very opening of this work [track 2]. Not that it lacks a jot of requisite fire or technique to spare but his particular skill is the easy nonchalance he brings to the most finger-twisting of passage-work. Even more so, he relaxes into the lyrical second subject spinning lines of gentle rapture. Not for him a hot-house vibrato or intense tone projection; he allows the violin to sing. Still in track 2 around the 3:15 mark is one example among many of the perfection of Graffin’s approach. Another word of praise here for the production and engineering; I like very much the way the soloist is allowed to play ‘inside’ the bed of orchestral sound – this gives a very natural perspective to the sound-picture and allows the orchestra to support the soloist. Very occasionally some intricate passage-work is subsumed in the drama of the full orchestra but that is a realistic reflection of the scoring. Again, this work is available elsewhere in fine performances, usually as part of a Saint-Saëns concertante programme but this is the equal of any. A common thread with several of these works was the presence on the Parisian musical scene of the violinist Pablo de Sarasate. As Graffin makes clear in his liner Sarasate was an influence either directly by commission or indirectly by the impact his elegant virtuosity. An example of this is in the third work on the programme, Lalo’s three movement Fantasie norvégienne. Lalo’s inspiration seems to have partly followed the current fad for all things Scandinavian – Svendsen having just had a hit with his Norwegian Rhapsodies – and wanting to write something for Sarasate. He sent the music to a touring Sarasate, heard nothing and fearing rejection swiftly reworked the piece into his popular orchestral Rapsodie norvégienne. In this revised form it has had a life on disc but the original concertante version is much rarer. Ironically, his insecurity was ill-founded, Sarasate was already learning the work and the success of the premiere conducted by Max Bruch prompted the latter to compose his own Scottish Fantasy. I have not been able to make any comparisons but frankly they would show little that is not already clear – that the performance here under consideration would be a serious match for any other contender. Out of curiosity I did dig out an old Jean Martinon/Orchestre National de l’ORTF performance of the revised Rapsodie. Its hard not to come to the conclusion that Lalo’s fear of rejection actually did him a favour. The revision is considerably more concise – taking over two minutes off the total playing time by excising the more soloistic passages. Also, by transferring many of the solo lines to the orchestral parts the scoring can be heavier and the impact of the work earthier and more rustically dynamic. Somehow, in the original, for all its virtues it does sound more of the salon than the fjord – that being said there are some wonderfully vulgar horn interjections alongside some really beautiful woodwind solos. Apparently there was some contemporary debate about just how authentic the melodies Lalo used – from the vantage point of over a hundred years later that seems a rather pedantic and possibly irrelevant issue. Better now just to celebrate the appearance in the catalogue of such an enjoyable work.

Which brings us to the first of the key works in the programme. It prompted me to wonder; is it better to be totally forgotten as a composer or remembered for just one unrepresentative work? Ernest Guiraud has suffered the former fate. If his name seems familiar at all it is probably because he supplied the now-discredited recitatives that were interpolated into Carmen after Bizet’s death. That act should be recognized as a sincere effort to ‘rescue’ that opera from the obscurity into which its admirers feared it would fall. Apparently the lack of many original compositions by Guiraud is due to the fact that he was helping others either as composition teacher to Debussy and Dukas or completing the orchestration for Offenbach’s unfinished Les Contes d’Hoffmann. The work here is another Sarasate-inspired piece and what a gem it proves to be. The bipartite form follows that of the Saint-Saëns Introduction and Rondo capriccioso and the gorgeously singing solo line in the opening part shows the composer’s allegiance to the world of opera. I cannot praise Graffin’s playing here too highly. His tight febrile vibrato and achingly sweet playing fits the music to perfection. The accompaniment is appropriately simple with echoes of the Massenet Meditation or even Godard’s Berceuse de Jocelyn. If you have any inclination for this style of gently passionate and romantic music do hear this. In the liner Graffin makes the very valid point that the emotional landscape of this music soon dated with the turn of the new century and few violinists wanted to invest the time to learn this deceptively hard repertoire when the audience were seeking overtly grander music. That being said the opening of the second part Allegro Appassionato is ripely dramatic with the Ulster Brass in imperious form, their sound superbly caught again by the Hyperion engineers. Graffin is brilliantly articulate in the bravura passages but once again it is his finely spun lyrical playing that lingers long in the memory. For the curious you can follow the score at that superb treasure trove of on-line scores IMSLP – looking at it proves what the ear guesses, Guiraud is masterful in his creation of simple but effective orchestration. Nothing ground-breaking in that field but it works. Lalo’s Guitarre in Pierné’s characterful orchestration provides a jaunty interlude before the closing piece on this splendid CD. If Guiraud is forgotten then Canteloube is remembered for little more than the Songs of the Auvergne and even then probably only for the Baïlèro. But if like me collectors were alerted to his qualities as an original composer via the recent release of his Triptyque on Naxos and previously by Von Stade on CBS-Sony you’ll know what to expect here. Any French work for violin that takes the title Poème risks comparison with the Chausson work of the same name. Yes, the emotional landscape is similar, pensive yet passionate but the Canteloube work is fully able to stand any comparison. By some way this is the latest work on the disc – originally conceived in 1918 it was revised in 1937-38. This is a gloriously rhapsodic work, lush and ardent. Much of the solo line lies at the very extreme height of the instrument which Graffin negotiates with supreme ease, the tone remaining perfectly focused and even. There is more than a touch of Gallic Korngold here. Again if you respond to the tear-laden nostalgia of that composer – and I certainly do – this is something of a discovery. Again the orchestral accompaniment is judged to perfection with the engineering allowing the orchestra to swell and engulf the soloist during the wonderful last climax. But as with so much of this disc the real glory lies in the reflective passages – listen to the final pages of the work [track 14 from around 14:00] the fiddle’s last backward glances and poignant musings, a ravishing end finally disappearing into a cloudless sky. One can only imagine that the demands this work makes on the soloist allied to its awkward length in regard to concert programming have conspired to leave it in repertoire limbo. This piece would be worth the disc price alone even if the companion works were nothing like as good as they actually are. Graffin is a stalwart of the Hyperion catalogue often recording less well-known repertoire. But this is playing of the very highest order regardless of the music played or the times in which we live. In an age when virtuosity is a given to hear a peerless technique allied to such superb unmannered musicianship is rare indeed and much to be praised. This is surely a bargain of the year not just the month.

Nick Barnard

Peerless technique allied to superb unmannered musicianship … much to be praised.