FRANCK: Violin Sonata in A Major; CHAUSSON: Concert in D Major for Piano, Violin and String Quartet, Op. 21 – Isabelle Faust, violin/ Alexander Melnikov, piano/ Salagon Quartet – Harmonia mundi HMM 902254, 67:11 (5/26/17) [Distr. by Harmonia mundi/PIAS] ****:

The Faust-Melnikov duo realizes two powerful masterpieces from the Belgian cyclical tradition.

Recorded June 2017, the 1886 Franck Violin Sonata here benefits from the chosen instruments used by Faust and Melnikov to realize something of the mysticism of the circumstances surrounding the work’s premiere by Ysaye and Bordes-Pene in Brussels.  Faust plays a Stradivarius 1710 “Vieuxtemps” that employs gut-strings, while Melnikov performs on an Erard from 1885. Together their sound remains nasal and dry, intimate and pinched, as if each note were a distinct moment in time.  The two themes of the opening Allegro ben marcato weave in liquidly pensive tones, perhaps a mite too slowly for some tastes.  Franck has already set the form for his cyclic work, based on Liszt and Schubert models for the unity of development. The succeeding Allegro in d minor conveys a passionate turbulence offset by excursions into the major mode.  The sooty, nasal quality of the violin adds a palpably charcoal texture to the musings. Melnikov’s keyboard part often projects a kind of brilliant toccata, subdued only momentarily from its sweeping momentum that concludes with a kind of D Major exhilaration.

The heart of the piece, marked Recitativo-fantasia. Ben moderato, echoes Franck’s admiration of Wagner, and Tristan especially. The chromatic line assumes a new sensuality, opening with a series of chords that supplies a leitmotif in the best operatic sense. The initial theme draws upon the first movement, recitative-style, then unfold into a those voluptuous chords and violin trills and interjections that assume a more fanciful character in what has been described as “hypersensitive lyricism.”  A sweet canon supplies the motor element for the finale: Allegro poco mosso, the piano’s echo one bar behind the violin. Against the gentle, barcarolle motion, the passionate surges from the second movement appear, with the keys’ modulating from D-flat into six sharps, while the melodic line becomes more angular and emotionally wrought with the theme of the Recitativo-fantasia.  Melnikov’s part becomes symphonic and grand, only to relent for the amelioration of the canon motif. We return to A Major and a rapturous coda, secure after an epic, even Wagnerian, emotional journey.

Ernest Chausson called his 1892 Concert an opportunity for the two main instruments “to project against the quartet background.” Almost in spite of the lush scoring, the music approximates a Baroque concept of concertino and ripieno, rife with thick, chromatic harmonies proceeding by means of cyclical progression. Three huge chords open the Decide movement, and they appear in collaboration with two other themes, often in the manner of an enriched fantasia. Parallel octaves and church doxology permeate the movement of studied duets and string quartet accompaniment, the legacy of Chausson’s studies with Massenet. The second movement, Sicilienne, conjures up the spirit of Faure. Isabelle Faust receives two themes in this movement, and her tone sound markedly more rich than in the Franck. In my own initiation to this music, Zino Francescatti – working with Robert Casadesus and the Guilet String Quartet (on Columbia ML 4998) – intoned the restrained, melodic magic with voluptuous authority.  At times, the “sextet” manages a truly symphonic sound that retreats into Baroque intimacy.

The Grave movement opens in drooping, despondent semitones in the ostinato keyboard, complemented by high tessitura in the violin. The dirge effect finds a somber echo in the string quartet. Melnikov begins to alter the atmosphere with rising-scale, double dotted accompaniment to Faust’s sliding semitones. The clouds disperse grudgingly, often ceding a moment of thunder and then tender consolations from the keyboard. The quartet proper has shimmering runs that add a decisive air of expectancy to the emotional broil. The last movement, Tres anime, utilizes syncopation to advance the ‘redemption’ of the themes we have heard prior, a true disciple of both Liszt and Franck. The violin-piano duets have become brilliant and luminous, recycling earlier motives with a purpose to resolve into D Major. The final urgency of the main theme has at the end the potency of a classical chorale.  At its premiere, led by Belgian violin master Ysaye, Chausson glumly exclaimed, “Another failure!”  Hardly.

—Gary Lemco