César FRANCK (1822-1890)
Violin Sonata in A (1886) [28:00]
Guillaume LEKEU (1870-1894)
Violin Sonata in G (1891) [29:34]
Henri Koch (violin)
André Dumortier (piano)
rec. 1956

Henri Koch (1903-69) was a distinguished Belgian violinist. He’s particularly remembered as a chamber player – he was part of the Quatuor de Liège, a leading group of inter-war period – but one who recorded sparsely. In fact he’s one of those rare musicians who has become known to us, on disc at least, almost (but not quite) as one-composer advocates. That composer was Lekeu. Koch recorded the Violin Sonata in the early 1930s on 78s with Charles van Lancker, and it saw good service on Polydor and Decca. His ensemble also recorded the unfinished Quartet in B minor on 78. He was an obvious choice therefore to reprise the sonata recording on LP, which he did, this time with André Dumortier, in 1956. There were other recordings by him, though not many. The major one was Jean Rogister’s Violin Concerto, which was dedicated to Koch. Rogister, and his brother Lido, were both members of the quartet in which Koch played. In a neat twist, Koch’s grandson, Philippe, has also recorded the Concerto.

Forgotten Records has disinterred the Lekeu LP, which also includes Franck’s own sonata. Koch was in his early 50s, and still in good form, though a little past his best. His intonation isn’t quite on the button, and his tone was never the most opulent, though it was invariably deployed with great intelligence and imagination. He does, however, have a tremendously assured way with Lekeu’s occasionally discursive narrative, and this kind of playing inevitably sounds just right. Even so august a player as Arthur Grumiaux, a fellow Belgian, radically revised his approach to this work in his two recordings, significantly tightening his tempi. Koch’s approach remained steady, consistent, and wholly insightful. He allows the pulse of the music to crest and fall, and his loving portamenti in the slow movement are truly delightful. He is not a fulsome player – as was Menuhin, say, who also recorded this sonata twice - but his diminuendi tell, and though Dumortier’s piano is balanced just too far forward, Koch’s artistry remains intact. Certainly those looking for a wide arsenal of tone colour will look elsewhere – sometimes Koch’s tone tends toward emaciation in certain positions – but those who want an authoritative historic performance from inside the tradition will find this recording highly persuasive.

The Franck is perhaps rather less recommendable. Here Dumortier has to bear an even greater weight of responsibility; on the whole he makes a decent fist of things, and ensemble is maintained well. It’s a small-scale performance, though Koch’s vibrato usage in the second movement is undoubtedly questionably varied, and at its best in the Recitativo-fantasia where melancholy is the primary motivator. Rubatos are subtle, and give and take always plausible. It’s a decent performance, then, but not in any way outstanding.

Though this will primarily appeal to violin aficionados, interest will not wholly be confined to them. If you like Lekeu, and want to hear a very decent LP performance of the sonata by an excellent exponent of the work, this will do nicely – though if you can, try to listen to the 78 performance too, which has been uploaded onto YouTube.

Jonathan Woolf

Will primarily appeal to violin aficionados though not wholly confined to them.