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Jeux à la Française
Louis VIERNE (1870-1937)
Sonata for Cello and Piano, Op.27 [21:37]
Charles-Marie WIDOR (1844-1937)
Three Pieces, Op.21 [8:28]
Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
Sonata for Cello and Piano [10:47]
Thierry ESCAICH (b.1965)
Nocturne [11:17]
Armance Quéro (cello)
Joseph Birnbaum (piano)
rec. 2016, location not supplied
ETCETERA KTC1587 [60:08]

These four French works for cello and piano reveal a corner of the repertory which is little known or explored. The booklet notes refer to Debussy’s argument that there was little extant music for cello and piano despite a demand for it from performers, and his publisher’s response that it “won’t sell like hot cakes”. The Debussy Sonata was the first of six projected Sonatas for various instruments (only three were completed – for cello and piano, for flute, viola and harp, and for violin and piano) which were the very last works he wrote.

However, Debussy was wrong in his belief that such works were few and far between, and over the previous half century cello and piano works had been composed in France by Alkan, Farrenc, Duparc, Saint-Saëns, Emmanuel, Magnard, Widor and Vierne – even if they had not found a lasting place in the repertory. This new disc includes two of those earlier French works alongside the Debussy Sonata as well as a more recent addition. Widor, Vierne and Thierry Escaich have in common the fact that each of them is so closely associated with the organ that, certainly in the case of the first two, their considerable output beyond the organ loft is largely ignored. This disc emphasises that they were (and are) composers of distinction beyond that, all of them presenting works for cello and piano of great authority and distinction.

The first work on the disc is the Vierne Sonata of 1911. The booklet notes tend to be dismissive – “in line with the double legacy of a declining Romanticism and Fauré’s legacy”, “follows the scheme generally associated with the genre”, “follows the fin de siècle tendency favouring cyclic processes, chromatic melodies, half-functional and half-colouristic harmonies” – but the lack of originality implied is nowhere to be found in this fervent and passionate performance from recent graduates of the Paris Conservatoire, cellist Armance Quéro and pianist Joseph Birnbaum. Instead, we have music of notable freshness, spirit and emotional intensity, which is strongly flavoured by Vierne’s distinctive tonal palette (in which chromaticism and sweet-sour harmonies feature alongside a solid foundation in tonality). The first movement opens with a haunting solo cello figure, answered by delicate flurries from the piano, before launching into an impetuous and fervent duet in which Quéro and Birnbaum reveal an almost uncanny mutual empathy. Waves of emotion and the continual ebb and flow of dynamics come across with a degree of uniformity which is surely a result of something beyond hours of rehearsal. The final cadence of the movement has, after the turbulence which has led to it, a searing ecstasy in this tremendous performance.

If the influence of Fauré is to be found anywhere, we might expect it in the central slow movement. But if it is there, it is subsumed beneath a performance which highlights the profound sense of desperation and frustration which lies beneath the surface of so much of Vierne’s music – one biographical sketch (by Ashley Grote) begins, “It was no secret to those who knew him that Louis Vierne’s life was one blighted by personal tragedy and professional misfortune” - and the Sonata was written not long after his wife had left him for another man. Birnbaum introduces the movement with an almost desperate musical cry of despair to which Quéro’s cello responds with poised discretion. This opening mood of anguish is somewhat alleviated in the central part of the movement, but such is the intensity of feeling these two players bring to this movement, that it certainly forms the emotional core of the work. After four widely spaced and unconnected piano chords, the final movement launches into a nervously agitated cello theme which hurries along, gradually gaining in confidence and optimism to end in a blaze of glory. Working in close partnership, Quéro and Birnbaum produce a compelling and wholly convincing interpretation, and present an unarguable case for this work, not as the last gasp of a dying era, but as a powerfully individual and distinctive addition to the repertory.

Widor’s output beyond the organ loft is well documented on disc, at least, but I had not previously encountered these three short pieces for cello and piano published (according to the booklet – other sources are less sure) in 1875. So far as I can tell, they have only been recorded once before on a Hänssler classics CD of 2007 which suggested that they were the first three movements of a four-movement Suite. I’m not so sure about that, but Widor did have a habit of grouping together disparate pieces to form larger works (it could be argued that this is the basis of his famous organ symphonies), so it would not surprise me. However, these are performances which celebrate the individual character of each piece without trying to forge any obvious links between them, and as the results are quite endearing. Above a gently throbbing piano accompaniment in the first (Moderato), Quéro moulds the opening lyrical theme with a singer’s feel for line which, coupled to Widor’s elegance, craftsmanship and melodic fluency, makes this a highly satisfying three-and-a-half minutes’ worth of music. The second (Vivace Appassionato) is rather like a robust country dance in which cellist and pianist present an object lesson in restrained and controlled virtuosity, while the third (Andante) opens with the hint of a music-hall ballad before sliding gracefully into a gently swaying cello solo which has about it the feeling of a sophisticated barcarolle. Quéro injects into this a tantalising sense of timelessness through a delicious sense of poise and balance.

The Debussy Sonata is already well served in the catalogues so should need no introduction. Since most cellists of distinction in our time have committed it to disc, Quéro is clearly up against some stiff completion, but she is more than a match for any of it. This is a performance which oozes Debussian sympathies, those abrupt switches from rich, mellow lyricism to agitated tremblings in the high register perfectly mastered, and the pacing ideal throughout. She produces an enormously variegated tone, particularly impressively in the pizzicato passages, and gives the impression of having thought about and nurtured every single note. But what distinguishes this performance is her partnership with Birnbaum. It seems as if whatever Quéro does in terms of speed, pause, articulation and dynamic, Birnbaum is right there with her, not following or leading, but showing complete unity of interpretative thought. Because of this, we have here a performance which brings out the elusive quality of Debussy’s music singularly vividly.
Thierry Escaich was appointed organist of the Paris church of St Etienne-du-Mont in succession to Maurice Duruflé who was himself, of course, a highly distinguished composer. Escaich’s own works include a number of hefty orchestral scores and music for voices, as well as a body of varied chamber works. Composed in 1997 Nocturne has already been recorded (by Xavier Phillips with the composer on Accord) in a performance which focused on the music’s assertive elements. Quéro seems more concerned with the work’s dark qualities, and there is a certain undercurrent of menace about it, well reinforced by the short, sharp piano chords lurking in the background at the very outset. Once again, what gives this performance such potency is the superb integration and interpretative coordination between Quéro and Birnbaum; this is a disc which, beyond the music, reveals two superb musicians in total synchronicity.

Marc Rochester



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