César FRANCK (1822-1890)
Violin Sonata in A major (1886) [26:48]
Gabriel FAURÉ (1845-1924)
Violin Sonata No. 1 in A major, Op. 13 (1876) [22:06]
Berceuse, Op. 16 [3:16]
Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
Violin Sonata in G minor (1916-1917) [11:37]
Minstrels, from Preludes Book 1 (arr. Hartmann) [2:07]
Jacques Thibaud (violin), Alfred Cortot (piano)
rec. 1927-1931, various venues. ADD
PRISTINE PACM 080 [65:54]
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.
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 Aron