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Alfred Dubois and Marcel Maas
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)

Violin Sonata No. 7 in C minor (1801-02)
César FRANCK (1822-1890)

Violin Sonata in A (1886)
Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)

Violin Sonata in G minor (1916-17)
Georg VOGLER (1749-1814)

Aria, Chasse and Minuetto
Recorded 1931-36
BIDDULPH BID 80172 [68.18]

This is a disc even more impressive than Biddulph’s collection of Bach recordings made by these duo partners in the 1930s. If the Beethoven betrays some idiosyncrasies it’s always engaging but the Dubois-Maas heartland of the Franco-Belgian repertoire could not be more persuasively explored than by these two embodiments of style and tonal nuance. Dubois was born in 1898 and studied in Brussels. After leaving the Conservatoire he moved in Ysaÿe’s orbit between the years 1917 and 1920, won prestigious competitions and teamed up in a sonata duo with Marcel Maas. After his mentor’s death he was the pre-eminent Belgian soloist, a position he was to hold for the rest of his sadly curtailed life. A late 1930s tour of America couldn’t be cemented because of the outbreak of war, during which he formed a quartet and taught – his most famous pupil being Arthur Grumiaux; both were superb Bach players – and he taught at the Brussels Conservatoire for over twenty years. He died in 1949. Maas’s career of course is more widely known – he lived on into the age of the LP but his earlier recordings may come as a welcome exploration of his youthful sonata playing.

The Beethoven Sonata, as I said, has its peculiarities. It may seem somewhat brusque at moments but the compensations are Maas’s beautiful clarity in the slow movement, the splendid balance between the two, their ability to sustain slow tempi, and Dubois’s classical lyricism and subtle bowing arm, those greater gradations of colouristic potential that players of the Franco-Belgian schools found. Dubois’s delightful little inflexions animate the finale wonderfully well.

I have to admit that when it comes to listening to the Franck I sometimes find myself wondering, not to put too fine a point on it, where exactly I am in the work. Some performers seem incapable or unwilling to distinguish paragraphs and movements; the work becomes sectional, undifferentiated and uniform, a cyclical exercise in static music making. Even fine musicians come badly unstuck, as badly as they do for different reasons in the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto. Music critics can shower superlatives like confetti or denigrate with easy aplomb – but this really is a magnificent performance. Dubois is neither smeary nor tensile; his portamenti are acutely judged and employed without an obvious intermediate note. Maas is reflective, his bass weighted sensitively. The sense of musical and emotive deliberation is palpable, their shading of colours and of volume in no way vitiated by a couple of little violinistic intonational buckles toward the end of the first movement. Dubois varies his intensity of phrasing in repeated passages, adjusts his vibrato and together with Maas characterises each movement with absolute authority. In a performance such as this the sense of emotional engagement, expressive intimacy and of musical inevitability are paramount. The tempo of the finale, as elsewhere, seems just right, the elasticity and drama unfolded with perfect judgement. Of all the performances I’ve heard of this work – even Thibaud and Cortot’s, even Heifetz’s – none seems to me to make more musical sense than this one, and few sound so attractive and sympathetic.

The Debussy should be meat and drink to Dubois and Maas and indeed it is. There is an idiomatic freshness in the playing, a perfect accommodation of the sonata’s changeability and malleability. Dubois is here the living embodiment of the Franco-Belgian school; not as sensuous or evocative a tonalist as Thibaud, of course – who could be – but one whose tonal limits work entirely directly and with sure fidelity. One can listen to him for example in the Intermède as his tone becomes suggestively leaner, as his portamento elegance moves incalculably from refinement to rhythmic coyness. Dubois and Maas are true partners and their performance is a true classic of the gramophone.

Tully Potter reprises his notes to this issue and he is rightly laudatory. I suggested in my notes to the Bach disc that Dubois was a connoisseur’s violinist. Be a connoisseur and admire his remarkable musicianship.

Jonathan Woolf



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