Maurice Maréchal was one of the greatest of all French musicians
- indeed he was one of the great cellists of the age. His association
with Jacques Thibaud was long lived and he was the first call
for Thibaud and Cortot’s trio when Pablo Casals was unavailable.
His heyday was between the two world wars, and though he was
still playing beautifully thereafter there were fewer opportunities
to hear him after this date because, I believe, he developed
problems with his bowing arm, and teaching took up much of his
time. He made very few records after 1945, though there was
a recording of one of Henri Casadesus’s amiable forgeries in
1950 and then two years later he recorded both Brahms sonatas
with Jeanne-Marie Darré.
This is a major rarity in its LP incarnation. I’ve seen astronomical
prices quoted for Pathé DTX127 – we’re talking thousands of
pounds – and this despite the fact that it has surfaced on at
least two Japanese CDs. This last point, at least, shouldn’t
be surprising. Maréchal was very popular in Japan and some of
78s were issued on Nipponophone for domestic consumption. The
Japanese remain connoisseurs of string playing to this day.
It’s true, thinking of Maréchal’s career, that by the early
1950s the next generation of French and Belgian cellists had
already begun to make their mark, perhaps making Maréchal look
rather old hat; men like Gendron, Navarra, Fournier, and Tortelier.
But the older man’s recorded swansong at least properly added
two pieces to his discography that has thus far escaped it.
Describing string players’s sounds is fraught with potential
traps, and this will be no exception, but there was something
supremely elegant and ‘woody’ about Maréchal’s tone. There was
great lyricism, a true control of legato, an avoidance of indulgence.
His tone production was wonderfully rich and it was not at all
like Russian playing; it was taut in tempo but never steely
in sound. His First Sonata is therefore kept on the move and
whilst purists may baulk at his not taking the first movement
recapitulation this at least ensured that each sonata fitted
onto one LP side. He and Darré play the Allegretto’s trio with
charm and timbral wit, and she is given her head in the finale,
where the balance rather favours her in its more tempestuous
The Second Sonata is again powerfully directional. Those used
to somewhat younger performers – let’s say Rostropovich or Leonard
Rose – will doubtless be amazed by the sense of passion and
drama adopted by the French duo. It’s certainly not to minimise
technical shortcomings as can sometimes be the case. Rather
it’s strategic and architectural, supported by variegated tone,
incisive tempi, and fully contrasted and characterised movements.
Maréchal’s tone has clouded a little since his best days, something
not helped by a dry-ish recording that itself can be a touch
cloudy. Nevertheless this transfer deals justly with source
material, preserving high end hiss and a touch of rumble. It’s
short timing, of course, given the source material and lack
of coupling opportunities, and there are no notes, just web
links. But for anyone at all interested in French string playing
from this vintage, this autumnal recording, like Thibaud’s last
recordings, is richly rewarding despite the occasional frailty.