César FRANCK (1822-1890)
Violin Sonata in A (1886) [30:35]
Ernest BLOCH (1880-1959)
Poème Mystique (Violin Sonata No.2) (1924) [23:12]
Julien KREIN (1913-1996)
Berceuse (1928) [5:44]
Zina Schiff (violin)
Cameron Grant (piano)
rec. Mechanics Hall, Worcester, Massachusetts, 11-12 November 2013. DDD
MSR CLASSICS MS1508 [59:26]

‘Gentle’ was not a word that I thought I would ever find myself using to describe a recording of César Franck’s Violin Sonata. But, it’s one that seems apt for this remarkably fresh and revelatory recording by violinist Zina Schiff and pianist Cameron Grant.

Listening to this work over the years I’ve enjoyed the stature which Itzhak Perlman and Vladimir Ashkenazy bring to the work in their 1969 recording (Decca 475 8246DOR), and the quality of contemplation which characterises Vadim Repin’s 2010 recording with Nikolai Lugansky (DG 477 8794). The 1988 performance by Joshua Bell and Jean-Yves Thibaudet for Decca (475 6709DF2) offers plenty of thrills and excitement, as does Ruggiero Ricci’s live recording with Martha Argerich at Carnegie Hall in October 1979 (Etcetera 1038), although in the latter flamboyance veers towards recklessness in the heat of the moment.

But, Schiff and Grant find an unexpected sweetness and contentment at the heart of Franck’s passion. That’s not to suggest that there is not power and richness, nor animation, in their performance. They have a strong sense of the sonata’s dramas and conflicts but the surges and fluctuations of emotion are underpinned by a still centre – an assuredness and crystalline vision which emphasises the sheer joy at the heart of the work.

Schiff employs a light vibrato and her tone is clean and pure, beautifully fresh. This is definitely a duo sonata and Grant is an equal partner: the lucidity of the accompaniment, even in the most tempestuous passages, is astonishing. The triplets of the opening movement are even and eloquent, rippling with controlled energy and underpinned by strong direction in the bass. In the opening bars of the Allegro every one of the furious semiquavers is crisply audible, and while there is an underlying air of tension, even menace, the tone remains warm and beautiful. In the closing animato Grant’s touch is incredibly precise and clean. I heard notes, motifs, harmonic nuances that I’ve never noticed before, in more than thirty years of playing and listening to this sonata.

What I find most remarkable about this playing is the way in which it balances Franck’s uninhibited melodicism with the intricacies of the composer’s contrapuntal writing. For example, in the poco più Lento section of the Allegro, Grant employs an expressive rubato in the triplets which wonderfully complements the major/minor alternations of Schiff’s stepwise, crotchet line, and to which the piano adds eloquent counterpoint: such moments truly reinforce the invention and expressiveness of Franck’s polyphony.

Tempos are flowing but not impetuous, and at times there is an unexpected, but not unappealing, restraint. The phrases have space to bloom and, even more impressively, there is an unwavering fluidity which makes the fluctuating moods cohere – something that is particularly noticeable in the second movement Allegro. Rubato is regularly applied but feels natural rather than mannered; and, it is used judiciously at the transitions between sections to create an organic flow. The Allegro is again a good example of the players’ innate appreciation of form: the fuocoso climax is driven but abidingly lyrical, which means that passion and composure seem like natural bedfellows – the slightest of rubatos at the recapitulation is expertly effected, bringing relaxation and release, but not repose. The tempo of this movement is fast but not rash, which allows for rhythmic precision: the repeating rhythmic gesture of the main theme, because strictly articulated, gains its own forward momentum.

In each movement, Schiff surprises with unforeseen details of articulation and phrasing – sparsely applied but full of impact. At the end of the Allegretto ben moderato there is real power in the rising E-string line, an inherent strength of tone which serves to underline Franck’s melodicism. Then, Schiff applies a little portamento to the two final phrases: after the clean simplicity of the phrasing up until this point, this small nuance keeps the listener alert as the movement relaxes into the final cadence. Similarly, before the coda of the Allegro, as the violin outlines and develops a four-note motif chords above sustained piano chords, again Schiff introduces significant rubato and portamento, the rich G-string tone imbuing the phrase with an almost Chassidic quality. The final double-stopped chords are full and long-held, a jubilant release of emotion.

The duo truly have the measure of the balance of lyricism and ethereality in the Recitativo-Fantasia. In her liner notes, Schiff writes of the three works on this disc as sharing a “source of mystery and majesty, a wisp of the ephemeral and infinite, of spirit and body, of boundaries and freedom” – and listening to this intimate, songful movement I felt that I knew exactly what she meant. The melody of the tranquillo section has a dreamy, meditative calm, while the hypnotic triplet accompaniment billows in animation, stirring from slumber. Again there is a surprise: a swell into the final note rather than written diminuendo, a last flicker of the flame.

The lilting tempo of the Allegretto poco mosso creates space for the canon to bloom elatedly. Schiff seems to have an infinite bow, so seamless are the bow changes, so fluid the melodic lines: I pondered whether she is also a singer as this movement was truly ‘sung’, by both performers. There are impassioned exchanges, the accented crotchet ricochets had real brilliance, and there is terrific exuberance at the close. But the overall impression is one of utter joy.

Schiff recorded a CD of Ernest Bloch’s music for violin and orchestra for Naxos in 2006 (review). Here she presents the composer’s Second Sonata, or Poème mystique, a single-movement work of contrasting sections which is said to have been triggered by a dream that Bloch had after taking a mild overdose of a sleeping aid.

As in the Franck, Schiff plays with the pure tone and dead-centre intonation that one might expect of a Heifetz protégée: the rhapsodic, unaccompanied opening is clean and true, the high E string glistens penetratingly. But, Schiff employs a varied timbral palette throughout this mercurial work: vigorous passages have real grit and attack; the G-string tone is by turns dark and gravelly, then rich and soulful; the double-stopping is lyrical; intimate melodies have a beguiling softness.

Both players have no problem surmounting the considerable technical demands, and Grant plays both his ‘roles’ with accomplishment: at times, the piano engages in inventive dialogue with the violin, or provides scintillating, sweeping accompaniments; elsewhere, Grant explores surprisingly independent realms, roaming distantly.

Again, what is most striking is the coherence of the overall conception. Bloch’s material characteristically incorporates Jewish musical idioms and Schiff has an instinctive feeling for the expressive intent of these gestures; she conjures a sense of profound spirituality which is deeply moving. But, Bloch combines such motifs with an eleventh-century Gregorian Credo the thirteenth-century Gloria of the Mass Kyrie Fons bonitatis. The Latin text is written in the score and concludes with the Hebrew Amen. Through this eclectic amalgam, Schiff and Grant build an unbridled intensity: the piano’s roulades sparkle with vibrancy and the violin’s silken thread gleams brilliantly. The conclusion is ecstatic.

The duo’s 2012 MSR Classics recording of Copland’s Violin Sonata and Bloch’s Abodah (review) also included works by two relatively unknown early-twentieth-century Jewish composers: Eric Zeisl’s Violin Sonata (Brandeis) of 1949-50 and Robert Dauber’s short Serenata. The pair continue that pattern here, concluding with Julian Krein’s Berceuse of 1928. Krein was a musical prodigy, the grandson of Abram Kreyn, collector of Jewish folk music and renowned klezmer violinist, and son of Grigory Kreyn who, like his brother Alexander was initially a member of the Jewish school of Russian composers, though he played down his Judaism in later years. Julien studied with Paul Dukas, graduating in 1932 from the École Normal in Paris and returning to Moscow in 1934.
Grant establishes a lazy swing at the start of the Berceuse above which Schiff’s melody unfolds with languorous sweetness. This is an appealing Romantic palette-cleanser after the intensity of Bloch’s poetic meanderings, but its details and Debussy-esque forays, are delivered with the care and sensitivity that characterises the whole of this superb disc.

Claire Seymour

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