Camille SAINT-SAňNS (1835-1931)
Sonata No. 1 for Violin and Piano in D minor Op. 75 (1885) [22:39]
Cťsar FRANCK (1822-1890)
Sonata for Violin and Piano in A Major (1886) [27:24]
Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937)
Sonata for Violin and Piano (1927) [17:05]
Joshua Bell (violin); Jeremy Denk (piano)
rec. 26-29 November 2010, Musical Instrument Museum, Phoenix, Arizona, USA
SONY CLASSICAL 88697891882 [67:19]
 
This recording from Joshua Bell and Jeremy Denk is entitled ĎFrench Impressionsí and was released at the beginning of 2012. Franck was a Belgian rather than a French composer but, as the programme notes make clear, he made his career as a teacher and composer at the Paris Conservatoire. He became a French citizen. Bell was a student of Josef Gingold at Indiana University who was in turn taught by Eugene Ysaˇe for whom Franck wrote his violin sonata and who gave the first performance of the work.
 
Saint-SaŽns wrote the first of his two violin sonatas at the same time as Carnival of the Animals in 1885 when he was a mature composer at the height of his compositional powers. It is believed to have inspired Marcel Proust to have imagined the Venteuil sonata which became a recurring love theme in the first volume of Remembrance of Things Past. The dark opening Allegro agitato from Bell and Denk is full or drama and foreboding with excellent balance and co-ordination. Bell plays the second movement Adagio with a gorgeous sensuous poetry while Denk shows excellent tonal and textural control. Both players relish the dance elements in the jaunty third movement and again show superb mastery of texture and dynamic. The finale is a finger-twisting perpetuum mobile which Bell takes at full throttle - a bravura piece of violin playing guaranteed to bring the house down in concert.
 
The Franck Violin Sonata was written around the same time as the Saint-SaŽns and was published the year after in 1886. It is one of the most famous sonatas ever written and uses cyclical recurrence of themes and a rich harmonic language. The incremental build-up in tone and intensity in the opening movement is superbly judged with both players taking time to reflect on Franckís exquisite harmonies and musical details. The turbulent second movement Allegro moves at a brisk pace with both players completely on top of the considerable technical demands. Texture, tone and dynamics are well handled although I was not convinced that Bell and Denk quite achieve the searing passion and intensity which one hears in the greatest performances - try Chung and Lupu. The rapt slow movement was by turns probing, meditative, passionate and lyrical with Bell drawing well shaped musical lines. There was a fine rapport and shared musical understanding between the two players in the famous last movement canon with Bell soaring the heights at the climaxes.
 
The last piece is Ravelís Violin Sonata written a number of decades after the other two works on this disc. Ravel used blues and jazz themes on a number of occasions: the G major piano concerto. It is deployed very effectively in the slow movement of this work, while the last movement is another perpetuum mobile. In the opening Allegretto, both players successfully convey a range of textures and vivid tone colours. This gives eloquent voice to the impressionistic nature of the piece while keeping the passage work clean and clear. Bellís pizzicato effects were particularly good in the slow movement although it was a little too clean - I would have preferred a slightly smokier and freer blues feel. The finale was another finger-twisting tour de force from Bell with Denk providing a rich palette in support.
 
All three performances are uniformly admirable.

Robert Beattie
 
All three performances are uniformly admirable.