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Albert ROUSSEL (1869-1937)
Sonata for Violin and Piano No. 2 in A major, Op. 28 (1924) [15:21]
Florent SCHMITT (1870-1958)
Sonate Libre en deux Parties Enchaînées, ad modem Clementis acquae, Op.68 (1918-19) [32:40]
André PRÉVOST (1934-2001)
Sonata for Violin and Piano (1960-61) [15:08]
Hélène Collerette (violin), Anne Le Bozec (piano)
rec. 2016, Radio France
RADIO FRANCE SIG11107 [64:11]

The list of composing winners of the much-coveted Prix de Rome during the 19th Century contains a handful of highly recognisable names (including Berlioz, Thomas, Gounod, Bizet, Massenet and Debussy) but, otherwise, largely consists of composers who never went on to achieve much of a reputation and who are now pretty-well forgotten. The winner in 1900 was Florent Schmitt and, from our modern viewpoint, he seems to fall into the latter category – despite his music being widely performed during the first half of the twentieth century and the fact that he was awarded the Legion d’Honneur in 1952. The reasons for his neglect are probably down to the attacks on his character, both during and after his life, for his pro-German sympathies before the Second World War and for his willingness to work for the Vichy regime. On the other hand, the nature of his music may also have something to do with it. Much of Schmitt’s output betrays the obvious influence of Debussy – and continues where Debussy left off, but unlike Debussy, Schmitt didn’t quite know when to stop. Correspondingly, several of his works that I have heard have a tendency to wander on at rather greater length than an audience’s interest can reasonably be sustained. In my opinion this is particularly true of the long Piano Quintet and I wondered whether it might also be true of the Violin Sonata – the longest of the three pieces on the present disc.

The length and difficulty of the piece (especially for the pianist) is probably responsible for its relative neglect, although Schmitt probably didn’t do it any favours by indulging in his fondness for a play on words in the title he gave it. The full title betrays the period of its conception, including the oxymoron of “free but in chains” as well as a punning homage to the French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau’s newspaper, L’Homme libre, which later became known as L’Homme enchaîné. Instead of being in the traditional three movements the work is cast as “a vast, three-themed, cyclical diptych, unfolding as a singular, ever-modulating, modal, sometimes polytonal, very free and sinuous progression” (as the notes have it).

Part 1 (Lent) lasts 12 minutes and starts with a solemn theme, proceeding with constant development – wisps of one of the three main themes returning from time to time. My fears about parallels with the Piano Quintet were partly realised. The piece rambles a bit and there is a marked contrast with the brevity of Debussy’s sonata. However, whilst the structure is not obvious to a first-time listener, the work contains much interest and variety – with occasional shades of Fauré. Part 2 (Animé) lasts all of 20 minutes and begins with a nervy dance that starts in the piano. This sounds to me to be principally in triple time but also with sections in what could be rather more unusual time signatures. The dance subsides to a Debussy-esque slower passage before the music proceeds on a strange, discursive and somewhat episodic (albeit seamless) journey. Following the eventual return of the nervy dance there is an extended, shadowy slow section – punctuated with repeated treble notes in the piano – that leads back to the dance and, this time, the end of the work. There are interesting suggestions of what was to come from Dutilleux and Messiaen.

The work has been recorded several times, most recently by Beata Halska and Claudio Chaiquin for Naxos (review). Rob Barnett found that performance “fluent and accomplished” but a brief hearing suggests that the piano sound is occasionally a bit boxy and the violinist’s tone is slightly less ingratiating than that of Collerette on the present disc. A US recording by Ilona Then-Bergh and Michael Schäfer for Genuin (review) is a different matter. Taking only 29:30 this is certainly a lively performance and the sound is rather more natural than that of the Radio France disc. On the other hand, I marginally prefer the present performance’s slightly greater subtlety. The interested listener is referred to YouTube for other alternative performances.

A brief assessment of the career of Albert Roussel, by David Dubal (quoted in Wikipedia) suggests that: “Roussel will never attain the popularity of Debussy or Ravel, as his work lacks sensuous appeal ... yet he was an important and compelling French composer. Upon repeated listening, his music becomes more and more intriguing because of its subtle rhythmic vitality. He can be alternately brilliant, astringent, tender, biting, dry, and humorous”. Roussel wrote two sonatas “for piano and violin” (this title reflecting the prominence of the piano parts in “piloting musical developments”) and the second, which appears here, certainly reflects Dubal’s broader description of the music. This work is in the traditional three-movements – which are marked: Allegro con moto, Andante and Presto.

For me this sonata was more of a discovery than the Schmitt work. The first movement is immediately interesting and engaging because of the busy and quirky piano part of the first subject. This leads to a hesitant, waltz-like second subject. Later, there are suggestions of the Third Symphony. The second movement starts with a simple and noble theme that the note-writer likens to a breeze that becomes immense. The swirling music nevertheless proceeds with an implacable tread before the huge climax subsides to a solemn conclusion. The third movement is again quirky and mischievous – again with what sound like one or two unusual time signatures and plenty of variety of mood. Lasting little more than 15 minutes the sonata doesn’t outstay its welcome.

This work has also had several outings on record. The most modern alternative recording is probably that of Pascal Schmidt and Anne Van Den Bossche, who recorded the work for the Cypres label. I haven’t managed to hear that performance but I doubt it can be much better than the present one.

The name of the Canadian composer, André Prévost, may be familiar to some readers but, I suspect, not many. I was certainly unfamiliar with his music. The rather limited Wikipedia entry under his name describes his style as being comparable to that of Alban Berg. His Violin Sonata seems to date from 1960/61 (rather than the year of his birth – as suggested by a misprint on the sleeve) – a time when the composer was attending classes in Paris with Messiaen and Dutilleux. There are three movements: Vif et énergique, Tres lent and Tres vif. I found the first movement rather percussive – and completely unlike Berg – but not without appeal. There are suggestions of early Bartok and (as the notes have it) “stubbornness, saliently jutting angles and rhythmic energy”. In the middle movement the piano has almost nothing to do, as the music consists of a lengthy and rather bleak violin solo (much more like Berg) punctuated on only two occasions by very loud and resonant piano entries – which are left hanging in the air. The second of these ends the movement and it is only when the violin enters again, pizzicato, that it becomes obvious the third movement has begun. This movement contains what is probably the most memorable music of the piece. As in the Schmitt we get a somewhat nervy dance-like theme. The composer makes interesting use of loud fistfuls of piano notes, the resonances accompanied by sustained violin harmonics or col legno scrapings. Once again, the relative brevity of the work ensures that it doesn’t outstay its welcome. I have been unable to find any alternative versions of it so, although no such claims are made on the sleeve, this may be a premiere recording.

For the Schmitt sonata the rival Genuin disc has much to commend it – as well as other interesting couplings (sonatas of Lajtha and Schmitt’s Dutch contemporary, Ingenhoven) but I would be very happy with the present splendid disc. The recording is slightly in-your-face but is very clear and well-balanced. The closeness gives the piano a bell-like and slightly clattery treble but there is also good bass resonance and this all suits the music well. The musicians give a terrific account of all three works and one can only applaud the sheer effort that must have gone into getting so well on top of the significant demands posed by the pieces, particularly the Schmitt. The violinist has an occasionally slightly nasal tone but is otherwise excellent. No praise can be too high for the pianist, who makes these works her own. Notes are relatively brief and the English translations from the French are occasionally clunky but this hardly matters.

Bob Stevenson

Previous review: Stephen Greenbank



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