French Impressions
Camille SAINT-SAËNS (1835-1921)
Sonata No.1 for Violin and Piano in D minor, op. 75 (1885) [22:35]
César FRANCK (1822-1890)
Violin Sonata in A major (1886) [27:36]
Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937)
Sonata for Violin and Piano (1927) [17:08]
Joshua Bell (violin); Jeremy Denk (piano)
rec. 26-29 November 2010, Musical Instrument Museum, Phoenix, Arizona, USA
SONY CLASSICAL 88697891822 [67:19]
Titled French Impressions, this trio of marvellous performances has been splendidly recorded at the Phoenix Musical Instrument Museum in Phoenix, Arizona.
Saint-Saëns wrote his passionate first Violin Sonata in 1885 whilst at the height of his compositional powers around the time of his famous scores the Carnival of the Animals and the celebrated ‘OrganSymphony. Saint-Saëns was by then a highly experienced composer for the violin having written his three Violin Concertos, the Morceau de concert, op. 62, the Romance, op. 74, and the Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso for Violin and Orchestra, op. 28. It was over a decade later before Saint-Saëns wrote his second Violin Sonata, op. 102. Here Bell and Denk display fine playing in a style that is most natural, unaffected and never feels over-projected. The Adagio is rapt and poetic with the sweet timbre of Bell’s instrument sounding especially appealing.
Of the alternative accounts of Saint-Saëns’s first Violin Sonata I still admire the successful recording from Sarah Chang (violin) and Lars Vogt (piano). They play with an elevated sense of engagement and tenderness. Playing the same all-French programme as Bell and Denk, the Chang/Vogt partnership were recorded at Potton Hall in 2003 on EMI Classics 5 57679 2.
A warhorse of the chamber music repertoire Franck’s Violin Sonata in A major remains a tough proposition for performers. Composed in 1886 it was a wedding present for Franck’s friend and fellow-countryman the violin virtuoso Eugene Ysaÿe. An epic work the four movement A major Sonata is fresh and packed with original characteristics. Along with the best of Beethoven’s sonatas Franck’s score can be classed amongst the finest of violin sonatas ever written. In this company the Franck Sonata has been the most frequently played. It runs the range of emotions from unbridled passion to sublime serenity. In the dreamy first movement Allegretto ben moderato there’s a degree of tenderness and how splendidly Bell and Denk convey the joyous sense of music-making in the delightful Finale. That said, this does not supplant the magnificent and exhilarating 1977 account by violinist Kyung-Wha Chung and pianist Radu Lupu. Their evergreen recording is on Decca 460 006-2 (c/w Debussy violin sonata, Chausson Poème for violin and orchestra).
The writing of the Ravel Violin Sonata occupied him intermittently for some five years. Around thirty years earlier Ravel he produced a single movement Violin Sonata a student work known as the Sonate Posthume owing to its posthumous publication. The appeal of the mature three movement score has made it a repertoire staple. Ravel’s ‘take’ on the ‘Blues’ throughout the memorable central movement as well as the occasional use of ‘Jazzy’ rhythms clearly reflect the fashion of the day.
Throughout Ravel’s varying moods and frequently interesting ideas the well matched Bell and Denk communicate a gratifying sense of assurance and conviction. The expressive and sharply defined playing of the bittersweet Blues movement is quite irresistible. In addition to this account I can also commend the version from Renaud Capuçon and Frank Braley for their refined authority, colour and innate sense of spontaneity. Their all-Ravel disc is coupled with excellent versions of the Sonate Posthume, Piano Trio and the Sonata for Violin and Cello. They are joined by cellist Gautier Capuçon on Virgin Classics 5 4549 2.
This Sony Classical CD offers impeccable performances and I will be returning to them often.
Michael Cookson
Impeccable performances.