Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
Violin Sonata (1916-17) [12:22] ¹
Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937)
Violin Sonata (1923-27) [15:54] ¹
Ma Mère l’Oye [14:44] ²
Sonatine [11:36] ³
Michèle Auclair (violin): Jacqueline Bonneau (piano) ¹
Jacqueline Bonneau and Geneviève Joy (piano) ²
Marie-Therese Fourneau (piano) ³
rec. 1955-57

Performances by French and Belgian musicians on early LPs have rather fallen between the reissuing cracks. That’s one reason why Forgotten Records has begun to earn a merited place in collectors’ hearts. They restore such things to the market with discrimination, and despite the fact that almost all their discs have simple, note-less card inlays, there are links to relevant websites to enable purchasers to find biographical details of the artists concerned. There are even one or two links to this site.

This disc creates a programme around the figure of ‘cult violinist’ Michèle Auclair (1924–2005). The question of so-called cult violinists is a vexed one. I suppose that Ivry Gitlis is the ultimate one, though Devy Erlih ranks high because his LPs are quite obscure; sure enough Forgotten Recordings have featured him strongly, and rightly so. Auclair is perhaps less well-known, though she taught for many years in her native France and in America. She was a student of Boucherit and Thibaud – the ultimate in French lineages – and made a number of recordings, many on more obscure labels. Her erstwhile teacher Thibaud conducted for her Haydn Concerto No.1 recording in Paris, and she recorded the Bruch G minor with Loibner, who had taped violin concertos with the ageing Albert Spalding for Remington. She did set down a plethora of standard concertos – Brahms with van Otterloo, Mendelssohn in Innsbruck, Mozart in Stuttgart, and the Tchaikovsky (very well) on two separate occasions. Possibly the last named concerto, with Wagner, was one of her best known discs, though her Schubert Sonatinas album with Geneviève Joy and her Bach sonatas set with Marie-Claire Alain were as well known and admired, especially the Bach.

Here we find her in Debussy and Ravel’s sonatas. The balance doesn’t really favour her; it does favour her fine colleague Jacqueline Bonneau rather too often. French studios were quite cold, and this accentuated Auclair’s rather razory and very incisive tonal palette. She was a truly committed player, and her soloistic instincts set her apart from older players still active such as Jeanne Gautier, who was altogether more clement. Some of her playing in the Debussy is brilliantly febrile and engaging; her shifts in the finale are highly expressive, and though her tonal resources are hardly flattered by the recording, one can tell how volatile a player she was. There’s real shape and meaning behind her playing, and one is swept along by it. Her Ravel is also very personal, and the sonata’s parodic elements are well attended to, as well as its more introspective intensity. The finale fizzes – excellent dynamics included – and there’s great personality and panache involved. There are overload hints, especially in the passagework, but I was happy to persevere because of the excitement she and Bonneau generated.

This alone would make for short measure, so FR has added other goodies. Bonneau teams up with Geneviève Joy, who was to become Auclair’s regular sonata partner in 1962, having earlier been associated with Gautier and Le Trio de France, for a delicious performance of Ma Mère l’Oye (March 1955). Again, it’s not exactly a recording draped in the finest cloth – more like breeze block, so chilly is the acoustic. But at least there’s no fudging and the two do generate warmth through their playing. A third distinguished pianist also appears in the shape of Marie-Therese Fourneau, who plays the Sonatine with great plasticity and wit.

For admirers of French chamber playing in the 1950s, this is a winning disc.

Jonathan Woolf

For admirers of French chamber playing in the 1950s, this is a winning disc.