“French Impressions” = SAINT-SAËNS: Sonata No. 1 for Violin and Piano in D Minor, Op. 75; FRANCK: Sonata for Violin and Piano in A Major; RAVEL: Sonata for Violin and Piano – Joshua Bell, violin/ Jeremy Denk, piano – Sony Classical 88697891822, 65:54 *****:
In surfing the Net one day, I ran across the headline of a review for the current Bell album. The reviewer sniffed that none of the included sonatas is Impressionistic. True enough (though having received a promotional copy, I don’t have access to the notes that will accompany the general release, so I can’t say what claims are made therein). Saint-Saëns’ First Sonata is a work of high Romanticism: by turns, noble, intimate almost to the point of coziness, blazingly virtuosic. Franck’s Sonata, just about everybody’s favorite violin sonata, appeared in 1886, just a year after Saint-Saëns’s, yet it is a work of late-Romantic chromaticism, indebted to the harmonic expansiveness of Tristan und Isolde and its ilk, which reminds me that Franck once said what Wagner had done for romantic love in music, he wanted to do for divine. It’s ironic that Franck’s patently religious compositions are largely forgotten today, while works in which he celebrates human love, such as Psyché and the far more personal Piano Quintet, are remembered. So too the great Violin Sonata; it has no stated program, of course, but since Franck presented it as a wedding present to Belgian violinist Eugène Ysaÿe, the alternation of tender and passionate moods in the work seems not at all amiss.
Then there’s the Ravel Sonata. While Ravel certainly inserted his own brand of musical Impressionism into the piano and orchestral works in the early years of the century, by the time he composed the Violin Sonata, dedicated to Debussy, in 1922, he was moving in a new direction that took cognizance of post-World War I cultural developments. It’s interesting to note that Ravel’s dedicatee, Debussy, was taken to task by some of his supporters for turning late in his life to a series of sonatas for different instruments; they thought his new commitment to absolute music was backsliding. But Debussy was probably catching a wave, and Ravel’s music from the twenties onward reflects the new musical trends Debussy anticipated. The Ravel Sonata is thus light in texture, direct and dry-eyed in the manner of the ascendant neoclassicism. Plus, in its most famous movement, the work employs the American popular music that was all the rage among composers in Paris after the War. Titled “Blues,” the movement is a canny instrumental evocation of the genre, with the violin at first strummed like a banjo, then languishing like a torch-song singer over the blue notes in the score. Jazzy overtones carry over into the impetuous finale.
Impressionistic or not, these three sonatas provide a wonderful short study of the various influences at work in French chamber music in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Here we have music of the highest quality, and that includes the Saint-Saëns, which I’m glad to see figures more and more in the repertoire of celebrated violinists. As I listened to the opening of the Saint-Saëns Sonata, I was worried that Joshua Bell might be approaching it a bit too fussily; he seemed to indulge in just a bit too much rubato, as well as fretting too much over dynamic contrasts. I needn’t have worried. Once he launches into the heart of the movement, it’s clear that he’s emphasizing the tenderness of Saint-Saëns’ lovely music here, but not at the expense of the muscle, which is evident in the fiery, wildly virtuosic finale. Franck’s gorgeous Sonata may be more a part of the lifeblood of every professional violinist, but it’s still difficult to hit all the right emotional notes in its varied fabric, and Joshua Bell and Jeremy Denk do, in a performance that does not take the music for granted.
Maybe Bell and Denk’s best work comes in the Ravel, which has great rhythmic energy and evinces razor-sharp coordination between the players from the very start. It’s all immaculately played in terms of tone production, and the program is just as cleanly and warmly recorded by the Sony engineers. Highly recommended!
An excellent survey of a favorite Chopin genre…