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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Violin Sonata No. 3 in E, BWV 1016: Adagio ma non troppo [3:38]
Partita No. 1 in B flat, BWV 825 (1725-30) [13:31]
César FRANCK (1822-1890)
Violin Sonata in A (1886) [27:13]
Juli GARETTA (1875-1925)
Sonata in C minor; Movement 3 Sardana (c.1923) [5:04]
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Violin Sonata No. 5 in F Op. 24 ‘Spring’ (1801) [23:09]
César FRANCK (1822-1890)
Prélude, choral et fugue (1884) [18:48]
Déodat de SÉVERAC (1872-1921)
Baigneuses au soleil (1908) [6:36]
Cerdaña: No. 4 Les muletiers devant le Christ de Llivia (1910) [7:12]
En Languedoc: No. 1 Vers le mas en fête (1904) [7:07]
Blanche Selva (piano)
Joan Massia (violin)
rec. 1929-30
SOLSTICE SOCD351-52 [57:52 + 54:34]

Although her reputation has slowly faded with the passage of time, Blanche Selva (1884-1942) was a distinguished proponent of French pianism in the first half of the 20th century. As a child, she took lessons with Sophie Chéné, who prepared her for entry to the Paris Conservatoire. Here she came to the attention of Vincent d'Indy, who later appointed her professor of piano at the city's Schola Cantorum when she was just eighteen. Besides a career as a sought-after teacher, whereby she developed a method which she passed on to aspiring music teachers, she was a successful concert pianist. In addition to the standard repertoire, she championed such composers as Albéniz, Roussel, de Séverac, Dukas, Roparz and Magnard. In 1925, she relocated to Barcelona and formed a duo partnership with Joan Massià (1890-1969), a Catalan composer and violinist, drawn to his "admirable style and accomplished skills". Selva was initially hostile to the recording process, but was finally coaxed into the studios of Paris and Madrid in 1929 and 1930 to set down a handful of 78s. Sadly, these were to be her sole recorded legacy. Shortly afterwards she had a stroke and, her career at an end, she returned to France, where she died in poverty in 1942. It's worth mentioning that she had several publications to her name. Between 1916 and 1924, she published three volumes on piano technique (L’enseignement musical de la technique du piano, Paris, 1924) and in 1930 her biography of Déodat de Séverac.

In seventeen concerts over the winter of 1903-04, the twenty-year-old Selva performed the complete keyboard works of Johann Sebastian Bach at the Schola Cantorum. Bach was the composer she played most often throughout her career. It’s a pity we only have the Partita No. 1 in B flat major on record, aside from the single-movement Adagio from the E minor Violin Sonata with Massià. Although claimed by harpsichordists, the Partitas played on the piano are my preferred option. Selva exploits the instrument’s individual characteristics to maximum effect in the wide colouristic palette, the full range of dynamic variance and its expressive scope. The Praeludium feels relaxed and is comfortably paced and artfully contoured. I love the expansive probing of the Sarabande and the refreshingly lithe and nimble Gigue with the athletic hand-crossing.

It is fitting that Selva recorded Franck's Prélude, Choral et Fugue, one of the composer’s finest achievements and most certainly a tribute to Bach. It is a performance of breathtaking beauty. Although it is a challenge for any pianist, Selva’s technical command does it full justice; she performs it with great emotional sweep. The central Chorale is played with prayerful reverence.

Much of de Séverac's piano music provides a sunny description of the South of France, where the composer eventually settled. Selva was a close friend and was devastated by his death in 1921. Her delicate touch and glistening filigree are evident in Baigneuses au soleil, and I'm impressed by the way she highlights the radiant hues of the canvas. Les muletiers devant le Christ de Llivia calls for more spectacle and autumnal colour. Vers le mas en fête seems the most impressionistic of the three pieces, with its bravura cascades and roulades. Sardana by Juli Garetta is a welcome rarity, exuberant and high-spirited.

CD 2 contains Selva’s collaborations with violinist Joan Massià. We begin with the Adagio from Bach’s Third Violin Sonata. The performance is stylish, elegant and marked by dignified reverence. Beethoven 'Spring' Sonata exudes warmth, confidence and optimism, anticipating new life and renewal. The slow movement is a lyrical meditation, while in the Scherzo there are wit and humour in the off-beat accents. The duo’s Franck Sonata lacks the passion of some performances I’ve heard. The opening movement is on the slow side, resulting in an absence of dramatic intensity with rhetorical gesture. The second movement fares better in the turbulent stakes and there’s sufficient anguish in the Recitativo. The finale is carried off with joy and elation. Massià’s tone, unfortunately, is monochrome and undernourished and lacks the burnished intensity which I think is a prerequisite for the Franck especially.

In the introductory notes in the booklet, Yvette Carbou, the proprietor of Solstice Records, explains that one of the chief aims of this project was to provide sound quality worthy of the artist. The restorations have been carried out by Art et Son studio and the results are outstanding. New life has been injected into these valuable aural documents, and the transfers emerge with freshness and purity. I must also make a mention of the excellent accompanying annotations, which provide plenty of biographical information and context, both in French and English, in addition to some beautifully produced photographs of the artists. 

Stephen Greenbank

Previous review: Jonathan Woolf



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