César FRANCK (1822-1890) Violin Sonata in A [27:33]
Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918) Violin Sonata in G minor [12:34]
Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937) Violin Sonata in G [17:57]
Shlomo Mintz (violin), Yefim Bronfman (piano)
rec. June 1985, Theatre La Musica, La Chaux-De-Fonds, Switzerland.
Licensed from Deutsche Grammophon GMBH 1986

What a joy – three of the greatest violin sonatas in the repertoire on a single disc! As soon as you start it playing the room fills with the most sensuous, lush and fabulous music. That remains the case until the final note of the final piece. The better you know the works the more exciting it is because you are waiting for theme after theme to emerge, themes you know so well and eagerly anticipate.

César Franck wrote his violin sonata, his only one, in 1886 and dedicated it to Eugène Ysaÿe on the occasion of his marriage. He actually presenting it to him at his wedding breakfast and the great Belgian violinist could not resist giving an impromptu performance there and then. It remained a favourite of his and has become a worthy member of the great pantheon of the violin repertoire. I’ve always felt that Franck has been undeservedly neglected. It is such a shame that he never wrote a violin concerto for although there is some doubt that he could play the instrument he was certainly a master of invention and improvisation. Such was his genius for harmony that the violin part in the sonata is truly wondrous and beautiful. The role of the piano is not one of pure accompaniment; instead it plays a major part in introducing themes and setting out to explore other melodies of its own whilst the violin improvises on the theme first introduced by the piano. That is how the work begins: with the merest hint of the melody from the piano that the violin then expands. Each cell is in fact a variation of the initial opening theme with the subtlest of changes. This approach makes for a fascinating and ultimately satisfying whole. The liner-notes set out an incredibly interesting point: that the final movement, the main subject of which directly grows out of a development of the work’s opening theme, involves “the most famous canonic treatment of a theme since the time of J.S. Bach”. What greater praise can there be than that?

Whilst Franck’s sonata was written four years before his death Debussy’s was finished only one year before his. His cancer prevented him from undertaking active service during the First World War so he threw himself into expressing patriotic fervour through his art. His scheme was to create a set of six sonatas using different combinations of instruments and culminating in one using all the instruments deployed in the first five. In the event he completed only three: the cello sonata (1915), the sonata for flute, viola and harp (1915) and the present sonata for violin and piano of October 1916 and February and March 1917. His very last public performance was its premiere. He signed them all off “Claude Debussy, musicien français”. He composed the finale first. The path to it may be novel but could be said to be a voyage of discovery for the composer and listener alike. Who knows how different it may have been if he’d “begun at the beginning”. The first movement opens with hushed notes from the piano and is joined by the violin in a sad and wistful theme. This is interrupted every so often by abrupt, sharp and challenging intervals. The second movement is exactly as its marking implies “Light and fantastic” with playful, flirtatious and sensuous spiralling series of notes that rise and fall in the most delightful way. The finale marked “Very animated” is just that and has some suggestions of Spain. This brings back memories of his great homage to Spain, “Ibéria”. It involves some very fleet-fingered dexterity on the part of the violinist and the end is reached in virtuoso style.

Discovering that Ravel struggled with the writing of his violin sonata which was composed over a period of four years (1923-1927) and while he was in poor health comes as a surprise. It seems to spring out of the speakers and into your ear in the most ‘fully formed’ way. Ravel was the pianist at its first performance and the violin was played by his friend from student days at the Paris Conservatoire Georges Enescu. The opening movement begins with a piano solo joined later by the violin in an ethereal fairy-like theme. This is ‘bruised’ later with spiky rhythms and strange sounds by both instruments. These have been likened to a croaking frog and a very apt description it is too. The second movement entitled ‘Blues’ is a wonderful evocation of jazz. This was something French composers in particular were fond of emulating in the 1920s and brings to mind the “Hot Club de France”. It is easy to imagine how much fun someone like Stephane Grapelli would have had with the piece. The finale is a dazzling demonstration of violin virtuosity which must be a serious challenge to even the most experienced soloist. It never lets up while working its way at breakneck speed via some more jazz inflections to a most rapturous and satisfying conclusion.

Shlomo Mintz and Yefim Bronfman were both born in the former USSR just one year apart. They became Israeli citizens, Bronfman taking US citizenship in 1989. Mintz is a conductor as well as a violinist and violist. Bronfman is a soloist as well as an accompanist. They are so perfectly matched on this disc. It is a true partnership and results in a wonderful disc of three classic sonatas which I have never heard bettered or enjoyed more. When you also take account of Brilliant Classics’ bargain prices it is easy to say that record collecting doesn’t get any better than this!

Steve Arloff

A wonderful disc of three classic sonatas which I have never heard bettered or enjoyed more.