Thibaud and Cortot play French Violin Sonatas of FRANCK, FAURE & DEBUSSY – Pristine Audio

by | Feb 27, 2012 | Classical Reissue Reviews

Thibaud and Cortot play French Violin Sonatas = FRANCK: Violin Sonata in A Major; FAURE: Violin Sonata in A Major, Op. 13; Berceuse in D Major, Op. 16; DEBUSSY: Violin Sonata in G Minor; Minstrels from Preludes, Book I (arr. Hartmann) – Jacques Thibaud, violin/ Alfred Cortot, piano – Pristine Audio PACO 080, 65:54 [avail. in various formats at www.pristineclassical.com] ****:
Pianist Alfred Cortot (1877-1962) and violinist Jacques Thibaud (1880-1953) based their musical operations in Paris, forming a trio in 1905 with Catalan cellist Pablo Casals. As a performing duo, the Thibaud-Cortot combination fused two disparate temperaments: Cortot, the passionate romantic and espouser of the Schumann and Wagnerian ethos; and Thibaud, the relatively demure, elegant, and graceful espouser of the French tradition. Neither artist cared much for practice. But together they imparted a visceral panache to the music of their choice, and Cortot’s instincts could be trusted well beyond his fingers. After the Belgian violin genius Eugene Ysaye, Jacques Thibaud would best represent the Gallic impulse, even with its occasional German leanings from the Belgian school of thought, in music. Menuhin often quipped that Thibaud and his instrument seemed wedded together in holy and erotic matrimony. And certainly, playing together, pianist Cortot did not refrain from the often spontaneous energies that made him both penetrating and unpredictable before an audience. The recordings restored here by engineering master Mark Obert-Thorn date from 1927-1931.
The 1886 Franck Sonata (27-28 May 1929) has a long “mystical” reputation attached to its conception and performance history. Thibaud approaches the first movement with his idiosyncratic portamento and rubato, to which Cortot responds with care although sometimes with a heavy hand. The phrases seem extended or “deepened” by Thibaud’s slow vibrato, but the forward motion of the movement gains girth and significance as it proceeds. Some of the fingerings in Cortot’s rapid passages in the Allegro seem unsure, and neither is Thibaud the model of tonal accuracy, but the sweep and febrile intensity of the movement remain inviolate. [Pristine employs the new Capstan pitch-adjustment software in their restorations, so we can be sure that any pitch inaccuracies are not due to problems in the original recordings…Ed.] Thibaud in his upper register can quite enchant us with his song. The motor energy they elicit in the final page quite dispels any technical reservations we harbor. The Recitativo-fantasia serves perfectly for the musical means of these two artists, in which each can demonstrate his softer playing and infinite degrees of meditative nuance. We can feel the incense burning at the altar of music, especially as Thibaud understates the heroic passion of the extended melodic line. By now, the “idee fixe” that glues the entire work together has become a love song or reprise worthy of Tristan and Isolde. The elegant canon that pervades the last movement, Allegretto poco mosso, blends fluid grace with the clarity and refinement of select porcelain, chaste and feverishly erotic at once. A performance for the ages certainly, and the eternal yardstick for all acolytes of this epic chamber work.
The 1876 Faure Violin Sonata No. 1 in A Major (rec. 23 June 1927) combines intimacy and emotional exuberance. The melodic tissue unfolds in waves, and the piano’s solid contribution insures the impetus does not falter. Much of the movement sweeps upward, eliciting a feeling of youthful momentum. The thin nasal tone from Thibaud increases the tension the first movement Allegro molto presents. In the more rhapsodic passages, the sense of constrained sea-change or controlled tempests becomes palpable. The  throbbing D Minor Andante has the violin’s responding to the rising figures in the keyboard, moving through F Major to a soaring climax in D Major. Thibaud and Cortot reach a tender consensus of musical expression rare in the annuls of chamber music-making. For the Allegro vivo scherzo, violin and piano scamper after each other in lightly dexterous cross-rhythms and colors. The Trio offers a more serious moment, then we return da capo to the quicksilver and mercurial thoughts of the original material. The last movement Allegro quasi presto likes to confront compound and duple rhythms in the course of its urbane and energetic themes that border on the kinds of “chorales” favored by Saint-Saens in his salon works and concertos. Liquid playing from both performers, particularly from Cortot, make for compelling listening as the opening tune appears four times, the finale a spirited, enthusiastic amen to the life force.
The little Cradle Song, Op. 16 provides a gem-like respite from the intensities that surround it on this disc. Cortot and Thibaud recorded the Berceuse 2 July 1931.
Debussy’s 1915 Violin Sonata in G Minor (rec. 7 June 1929) was to have been one of six sonatas in different combinations projected by the mortally-ill composer; this piece alludes in its dark ironies to the events of WW I. The music combines any number of opposing emotions: sweetness, nostalgia, and sarcastic fire. The aesthetic of the piece seems counter-intuitive, the instruments pulling at each other or moving in contrary patterns. To make them blend becomes the challenge to both participants. Given the proximity of these artists to Debussy himself, it would be hard to find a more “authentic” performance. The Allegro vivo moves briskly, almost invisibly, past us in somber figures, brooding and aching with reminiscence. Cortot and Thibaud a coquettish bitter airiness in the Intermede, marked Fantasque et leger. The last figures assume a sensuous quality, a throwback to a more romantic spirit that dissolves before our very ears. Cortot must perform light tremolo figures in the last movement, Finale, while Thibaud’s tempestuous violin part ranges from low open G to a very high C-sharp. The effect, eerie and hallucinatory, proves the artists’ bravura and seamless ensemble, while a kind of militant nostalgia marches us — whither?
The little “Minstrels,” recorded the same day as the Sonata, projects that elan vital combined with boulevardier nonchalance that guarantees its immortality. The sound restoration had my complete attention, unmindful of  “age restrictions.”
—Gary Lemco

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