This disc is released under the title ‘Thibaud and Cortot play French violin sonatas’. It contains three major sonatas, the Franck, the Debussy, and the first Fauré. A couple of encores (the Fauré Berceuse and an arrangement of Minstrels from the Debussy Preludes Book 1) strike a lighter note The recordings date from between 1927 for the Fauré and 1931 for the Berceuse. The arrangement of the three sonatas is logical, moving from romanticism (Franck) to modernism (Debussy), by way of the Fauré which combines elements of both.
Apart from the surface noise, what one notices mostly at the start of the Franck Sonata is Jacques Thibaud’s generous portamenti and rather variable intonation. Both of these become less prominent as the movement progresses, creating an atmosphere that is calm but also quite intense. Cortot has a weight of tone that is surprising for recordings of this period. The second movement is quite brisk, but not at all metronomic; the duo is obviously on the same page for these tempo fluctuations. The music works its way back to the return of the scherzo with a rhapsodic abandon that is impressive, spoilt only a little by a wrong note from Thibaud at the final forte chord. The slow movement features some attractively throaty legato playing from Thibaud, answered by a beautiful soft passage from Cortot. The dialogue between the instruments in this movement is rapt, and the interpretation always has a great sense of direction. The canonic imitation at the beginning of the finale is tenderly phrased, and the tension gradually builds until the ecstatic coda. I preferred this performance to the “million dollar duo” of Heifetz and Rubenstein, coincidentally on another Mark Obert-Thorn transfer (see review
); Heifetz sounds unsettled, and the partnership fails to fire until the finale.
The first Fauré Sonata also suffers from heavy surface noise at the very start, but this soon dies away. Cortot manages Fauré’s characteristic semiquaver accompaniment expertly, and Thibaud’s legato playing is again impressive, seeming to fit more notes on a bow than modern players. The second movement begins in a tense and rather ambiguous mood; Thibaud’s harmonics ring out spookily. The scherzo is playful and vivacious, taken here at a pretty fair clip. The tempo broadens for the introspective trio, then quickens for the return of the scherzo, with some attractive syncopated rhythms. The recording seems a bit dimmer for the finale and the hiss is a little more noticeable. Thibaud doesn’t quite nail the octaves passage the first time around, but does better the next. The timings are pretty similar to the classic performance by Christian Ferras and Pierre Barbizet, which has the benefit of an ADD stereo recording. The little Berceuse is played with unforced feeling.
The Debussy Sonata is an enigmatic work, with an overall feeling of desolation alternating with episodes of forced gaiety. Thibaud and Cortot obviously understand this music deeply, and depict its emotional fluctuations with great sureness. The Intermède is taken at quite a steady tempo; Cortot’s left hand figure scuttles eerily. Thibaud phrases the alla marcia episode near the end of the finale with unusual tenderness; most other violinists play this much more heftily. The music seems to be trying to find the heart to go on, before rushing to the headlong final cadence. Kyoko Takezawa gives a characteristically impassioned reading of this work in her 1993 recording with Rohan de Silva, but I felt that Thibaud and Cortot had a surer grasp of this work’s elliptical utterances. The Hartmann arrangement of Minstrels features neat double-stopping and resonant pizzicatos.
Those who have a solo career are not always suited to the give and take of chamber music. However on this disc Cortot shows himself to be an extremely skilful accompanist, while Thibaud does not indulge in any Heifetz-like hogging of the limelight. Their partnership is secure and unselfconscious, with an intuitive understanding. The occasional portamenti, and the emotional generosity of the playing, mark these performances as being of the old school. The handful of wrong notes just adds a sense of immediacy, and reminds us of a time when recordings could not be artificially patched together. This is a great collection of French violin repertoire, and the performances are uniformly excellent. As usual Mark Obert-Thorn has done a sterling job with the transfers; there is some intermittent surface noise, but both players have a vivid presence.