Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Cello Sonata No.1 in E minor Op.38 (1862-65) [20:48]
Cello Sonata No.2 in F Op.99 (1886) [22:36]
Maurice Maréchal (cello)
Jeanne-Marie Darré (piano)
rec. February (No.2) and September (No.1), 1952, Théâtre des Champs Elysées

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 ensembles.

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.

Jonathan Woolf

Richly rewarding despite the occasional frailty.