Fauré’s Violin Sonatas

Fauré was not the most prolific of composers but his music is of the highest caliber, particular the intimate chamber works; delicate and sensual in the iconic Gallic style of the time, with both memorable shorter melodies (the Romances sans Paroles are under appreciated pianistic gems on par with anything from Brahms or even Schubert); Dolly and the Masques et Bergamasques are pure joy; on the other handthe Requiem is an angelic sine qua non, an antidote to the gloom foretold in many others of the genre, most infamously in the words of a contemporary British critic who disdained the pieces for being a “lullaby of death.” As a student of Saint-Saëns and precursor to Ravel and the Impressionists, Fauré bridged styles and generations in the most interesting and rewarding ways — conservative in form, to some sensibilities, yet very free and modern stylistically.

Here I consider four of the handful of records of his two Violin Sonatas, which present both exemplars of these 100_9973characteristics and variety in their performances ranging from the earlier versions by Zino Francescatti and Robert Casadesus (Columbia 5049, rec. 1953, available on CD from Sony). On my 6-eye copy the mono sound is resilient and pristine, with the violinist’s distinctive precision gliding along with little romantic dramatism. The tunefulness dominates rather than the musicians’ personalities, and the effect is pure delight in the first Sonata, written by a young man (aged 31) still under the sway of his mentor Saint-Saëns, who very much approved. The Sonata No. 2, written 40 years later, still possesses the melodic qualities of the first but is less of a token of the flourishes of the Parisian Belle Epoque than of more equivocal cultural, chaotic environment of 1917; “autumnal” to borrow a rather overused musicological term. Casadesus is an equal in these performances, driving the music as much as the soloist he accompanies. Both men were proficient in a wide range of repertoire, and often performed together; this record is in a sense their perfect collaboration.

It’s no surprise (and also somewhat regrettable) that Fauré’s music is mostly favored by his countrymen. The first record was made by Thibaud and Cortot in 1932. Similarities in pacing and style are very evident, and the partnership dynamic with Cortot is noticeable, Francescatti’s leaner, more crystalline tone deliver a different feel overall, however — despite the obviously expanded dynamic range. One can find the vinyl on the old HMV/COLH LP series and on CD from EMI. A presumably 78rpm transfer of the first Cortot 1st movement from the Sonata No. 1 is on YouTube here:

Probably the record held in highest esteem is that from Arthur Grumiaux and Paul Crossley on Philips (9500-534, rec. 1978), Grumiauxwhich features the unmatchable technique and drama of Grumiaux’s instrumentalism in both Sonatas, with unmatched sonics from the height of the late analogue era. (The YouTube clip below concludes with his recording of the Franck sonata with Sebok as accompanist.)

A fuller tone and a more Romantic style (do I detect occasional double-stops?) position Grumiaux into revealing counterpoint with Francescatti, detracting nothing from either. Crossly is also more of an accompanist here than an equal partner in the performance. Available on CD in two versions, this first from Philips and a second from London — clearly some kind of cross-liscence from Polygram, here, though I can’t vouch for the sound on either.

A later rendition comes from the accomplished French violinist Pascal Amoyal with Anne Queffélec on Erato (71195, rec. 1979). The tone here is overall more subdued, more Brahmsian — not dark, to be sure — but less ebullient. An illuminating contrast

worth considering alongside the above mentioned discs. Amoyal recorded the works again with another master of French pianism, Pascal Rogé for London/Decca in the 1990s (Rogé’s solo Fauré album is a must-have). Likewise, Amoyal’s 1992 Harmonia Mundi CD of the Brahms Sonatas, with Pascal Devoyon, is among the finest on record, adapting the French sensibility to Brahms rather than the other way round. The Erato Amoyal has not been reissued on CD.

Lastly I mention the only more modern, CD-version of the Sonatas I favor on par with these vinyl records, from the Korean Dong-Suk Kang also accompanied by Pascal DevoyonKim on Naxos. From the same CD, below is a clip of Kang performing Fauré’s Romance for Violin and Piano, a good example of the tone/style I’m referring to (can’t seem to find the Sonatas for free on the web).

Kang has won recognition for recordings of works by Elgar, Sibelius, and Grieg and his approach reminds me most of the Elgar Violin Sonata in its most robust performances from Nigel Kennedy (Chandos ABRD-1099, and CD) and as well as Maxim Vengerov on Teldec.

By way of comparison, here is the first movement from Kennedy’s Elgar Violin Sonata.

Kang’s Naxos acoustics are the most open and spatial of all the recordings sampled here, and there is nothing to apologize for with the digital sonics. Kang is perhaps the robust of all soloists here, and Devoyon is more animated than he was with Amoyal; he too is a highly accomplished in the French repertoire of this era with many fine records (the Fauré cello sonatas with Isserlis, as well as the Saint-Saëns violin sonatas, and chamber works by Chabrier).

I’m by no means trying to be comprehensive here, just covering what I’ve got on vinyl, and the Kang, from about the time I generally stopped buying CDs.There are a few Fauré Sonata records I’m omitting, including the early Ferras/Barbizet on HMV (can’t abide his vibrato) and Bobesco on vinyl, Mintz on CD, and a very few others who have ventured here.

About Jonathan Riehl

Jonathan Riehl writes and teaches communications, rhetoric, and American politics. He used to be a Republican. View all posts by Jonathan Riehl

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