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Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937)
Sonate posthume (1897) [13:48]
César FRANCK (1822-1890)
Sonate in A major (1886) [28:19]
György LIGETI (1923-2006)
Duo (1946) [3:08]
Olivier MESSIAEN (1908-1992)
Thčme et variations (1932) [10:11]
Duo Gazzana (Natascia Gazzana (violin), Raffaella Gazzana (piano))
rec. 2017, Auditorio Stelio Molo RSI, Lugano
ECM NEW SERIES 2556 (4816781) [55:26]

This is the third ECM New Series release from Italian sisters Natascia and Raffaella Gazzana, and Jonathan Woolf’s review of their Takemitsu/Hindemith/Janáček/Silvestrov debut programme can be found here. The French music here is well known, but we are also treated to a world premiere recording in the form of György Ligeti’s Duo for violin and piano.

Ravel wrote his Sonate posthume at the age of 22 is gorgeous and sophisticated, but stylistically related to the Romantic voices of Franck and Fauré, indicative of a composer superbly equipped with technique and confident ideas, but still finding their feet stylistically. The Gazzana sisters managed to conjure a magical atmosphere around the music and perform with a restrained style that underplays the romance of the piece a little, though they have plenty of passion in the climactic passages in the second half of the work.

César Franck’s huge Sonata for piano and violin is the main work here, and also deservedly the most famous. Born in Belgium and with German ancestry, Franck became established in Paris from his teenage years and therefore counts as French for this programme. There are numerous excellent performances of this work around and so competition is fierce. The playing here is elegant and sublimely musical, though a little more forward momentum in the first movement, particularly in its latter half, would help. Paul Griffiths in his booklet notes argues that this is “not a virtuoso showpiece, [more] a test of interpretation.” Indeed, it’s not filled with extravagant violin techniques, but any good performance will demand virtuosity of its performers, and we do have a lot of this here as well as a sensitive feel for the poetry in the work. There is plenty of dramatic fire in the second movement, and the operatic feel that runs through the middle movements is taken up in timeless rumination in the Recitativo first section of the third movement. The lovely final section is played beautifully and the richly inventive final movement is performed with an acute ear for Franck’s changes of mood through his organist’s feel for harmonic contrast.

As mentioned, there are just too many alternatives for this work to come out with a meaningful hierarchy in terms of choice. I’ve always rather liked Arthur Grumiaux and György Sebök on Decca, and have picked this out by way of comparison for the way Grumiaux introduces a layer of rhetorical character to the playing, something that I miss a bit with Natascia Gazzana. The piano sound for the Decca recording can be a bit twangy, but there is no denying the fire and expression in the playing here. The Gazzana sister’s performance is wonderful in many ways, but has a faintly underpowered feel and doesn’t particularly make my blood run hot or cold. It wins in transparency and poetic poise where others are more earthy, and where Natascia Gazzana digs deeper, for instance in the second movement, there are some raspy side-effects that suggest she really would rather not have.

The excitement of the György Ligeti premiere is tempered a little by reality. This is an early work unearthed from the Paul Sacher Foundation archive, heavily influenced by Bartók, replete with Hungarian folk-music inflection, and a million miles away from Ligeti’s later masterpieces. There is of course interest in seeing where such a composer’s roots lie, and this is indeed a fascinating little piece in its own right, full of wit and rough-hewn charm.

Messiaen’s Thčme et variations was composed as a wedding present to his first wife, the violinist Claire Delbos. This is Messiaen before the Quatour pour le fin du temps, but already with a clear inclination for timelessness and ecstasy in the final apotheosis in which “the violin rises over ethereal bells into spheres of celestial peace.” The dramatic earlier variations also unfold powerfully in this performance and this work makes for an excellent conclusion to this “walk through a French garden of music, comprising a small Hungarian enclosure.”

This ECM recording is spacious and transparent with plenty of air around the players, making for an attractive and compelling listen. As a programme this works very well indeed, and no-one need hesitate in adding it to their collection. While there are indeed alternative performances of some of these works that offer a different angle on the music, this will always be the case when it comes to familiar repertoire. In this case the context is the important thing, and if you’d heard this as a recital then I can hardly imagine you would not have wanted a copy of the recording to take home afterwards.

Dominy Clements



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