We are fortunate that Thibaud and Cortot recorded these three great French,
or more accurately Franco-Belgian sonatas. In fact they recorded
the Franck twice, and this is the second, electric recording.
Fortunate because they set something of a benchmark for stylistic
acumen which was very influential, although not necessarily
replicated by other duos, and nor should it have been. Thibaud
and Cortot brought a wealth of experience, refined musicianship
and, yes, a degree of fallibility too.
At their best there are few to match them for badinage, charm,
and personalised engagement. Few, too (if any) have matched
Thibaud’s sensuous violin playing. Later generations of
French duos, most prominently Francescatti and Casadesus, may
have ploughed their own rather more streamlined furrow, but
Thibaud and Cortot remain amongst the discographic pioneers
and stylistic arbiters of the repertoire.
I do, that said, marginally prefer their 1923 acoustic recording
of the Franck, but that’s hard to get hold of and this
1929 re-recording makes a far better aural impression. Mark
Obert-Thorn has retained a good ratio of surface noise, and
has not lost much in the way of room ambience (Salle Chopin
in Paris). The performance is volatile, and full of expressive
gestures, such as Thibaud’s pervasive and luscious portamenti.
Cortot occasionally struggles with the merciless piano writing
and both musicians certainly aren’t wholly polished, but
then absolute precision was neither man’s birthright.
Both rehearsed and practised too little.
Fauré’s A minor Sonata was recorded in London in
1927. It’s the work’s first recording and set a
Gallic standard that placed it apart from more high octane performances
from such as Heifetz, whose coruscating 78 set sometimes missed
the point. Again, the refulgent slides are in evidence and so
too some fallible intonation and a few Cortot slips. But the
ethos is wholly identifiable, and inimitable.
Almost all French/Belgian duos of the pre-war and indeed immediate
post-war days took the Debussy sonata in a characteristic way.
Like Francescatti and Casadesus, like Dubois and Maas, the music
moves directionally, and tempi - whilst not harried - are decisive.
The music travels with velocity but breadth, not a contradiction
when it’s phrased as these three duos phrase it. Its quicksilver,
uneasy quotient is rendered the more unstable and convulsive
via fast tempi but these days, as so often, tempi have slackened
and with the slackening the vertiginous contrasts between paragraphs
within a movement. This 1929 recording exemplifies just how
alive and unsettling a work this can be. It’s beautifully
interpreted and paced, and Thibaud’s inflexions, colours,
pizzicati and attacks are matched by Cortot’s pianistic
wit - not a quality one necessarily always finds in him. It’s
the locus classicus of French style.
The Berceuse gets a lovely performance, and Minstrels,
in the Arthur Hartmann arrangement, equally so.
This is a cornerstone historic violin sonata disc, a first port
of call for those who want to know what the French violin school
was all about.
see also review by Guy