FRANCK: Violin Sonata in A. FAURÉ: Violin Sonata No. 1 in A, op. 13. Berceuse, op. 16. DEBUSSY: Violin Sonata in g. Preludes, Book I -- Minstrels (arr. Hartmann).
Jacques Thibaud (violin); Alfred Cortot (piano).
Pristine Audio PACM 080 TT: 65:54.

For most of the 19th Century, the genius of France went into opera and theater music. French composers did write orchestral and chamber works, but comparatively speaking, either the composers or the efforts were minor. Not until Saint-Saëns do we get anything comparable to German accomplishments, and you can put Fauré and Debussy at the level of Dvorák and Brahms without laughing or cringing.

There's really no mystery to it. French audiences flocked to opera and theater, while a narrow slice of cognoscenti subscribed to specialist chamber and orchestral societies. A composer didn't make his money there. The truly professional instrumental composer generally had a paying gig somewhere else. Franck and Saint-Saëns directed music for the church and taught, as did Fauré. Debussy essentially lived on patronage throughout his career and spent beyond his means. All these writers to a great extent, by their creations, leveled the hierarchy ever so slightly. Ballet and opera continued their popularity, but more listeners opened up to purely instrumental music.

A pioneer, César Franck did, I think, his best work in his Piano Quintet and Violin Sonata. Franck's music tends to bother me, since I find that its joins show through in obvious ways and that his use of cyclical form strikes me as mechanical. The cyclical form seems to me to derive both from Liszt and from Wagner and his Leitmotiven. In the latter, however, it directly serves the dramatic action, and drama and rhetorical focus is precisely what Franck's music generally lacks. The motives tend to reappear for no good rhetorical reason and thus become mechanical and arbitrary. Indeed, one might even suspect that Franck resorts to them when he runs out of new ideas. These weaknesses plague the Violin Sonata less, although they haven't disappeared. In four movements, the work begins with a melancholy serenade, not in sonata form -- more a development of two ideas in alternation. A neat moment occurs toward the end where the second idea morphs into the first, thus showing their kinship. The second movement works up a great passion, using, among other things, the two main ideas of the previous movement and the germ of the opening theme to the finale. An improvisatory movement follows, essentially allowing the violin to mull over the all the themes so far. What sounds like a new strain, a lyrical Slavic-like theme, actually turns out to be a variant of the sonata's opening idea, which Franck beautifully makes clear as the new leads to the old. Much has been made of the "canonic" finale. As a canon, it's pretty small beer, nothing more than soul music call-and-response, such as we got from Sam & Dave, where the last note of one instance overlaps the upbeat of the repetition. Fortunately, the outpouring is so heartfelt, the fact of canon means very little. After the main strain (itself deriving from the second movement), Franck again parades previous themes in variation -- the "Slavic" bit from the third movement, the opening basis of the second, and the subsidiary theme of the first -- all punctuated with the canonic idea. This finale satisfies me the most of the four.

With Fauré, we get a composer who has so absorbed classical structural principles that he can play masterfully with form. The first sonata begins with a melody I immediately think of as French, perhaps because of the strong hints of modality. The harmonies indicate Fauré, a composer with an idiosyncratic ear, who puts unexpected chords beneath passing tones and loves the enharmonic modulation. Compare this to Brahms's first (1878), for example. It's a different musical universe. The first sonata comes early in Fauré's career (1876) and forty years separates it from its successor, but even here Fauré has achieved a masterpiece which owes some debt to German practice, yet isn't a knock-off. The opening movement is an impetuous sonata, dominated by a singing line. The melancholy second moves to a languorous barcarolle rhythm. A puckish, syncopated scherzo follows, and, in refreshing contrast to common practice, a leisurely finale, something else that endears Fauré to me. He doesn't try to overwhelm a listener with slam-bang. Instead, he lets the listener come to him. One senses a tremendously cultured mind with, at times, an elfin whimsy, and always a sane, measured sense of proportion. This is music for mature listeners.

The Berceuse comes from 1879. Fauré later orchestrated it, a task he disliked, so he must have had really warm feelings toward this morceau. It's a light salon-like work, exquisitely done. It sings very tenderly.

Debussy projected a violin sonata as early as 1894. He didn't complete one until 1917, among his last works and the occasion of his final public concert appearance. This is the latest of a series of three chamber works begun in 1915, during World War I, and intended as a tribute to the spirit and culture of France. The triptych also includes the Cello Sonata (1915) and the unusual Sonata for flute, viola, and harp (1915). Each of these works inhabits weird universes, and each shows tremendous concentrated power. The violin sonata I find especially enigmatic, both rhetorically and emotionally. Compared to the luxuriousness we normally associate with Debussy, this sonata is stripped-down, with lean clear textures, and the movement structures come across as odd and fragmented. The first, "Allegro vivo," eschews sonata form. Its unusual shape begins meditatively and ramps up a bit at the very end. The scherzo second movement, "Intermède" (intermezzo), changes mood capriciously. "Finale" rounds things off with a busy dance, interrupted by pauses for breath.

" Minstrels" appeared in the first book of piano preludes of 1910. These minstrels have little do with the medieval minnesinger. Instead, Debussy evokes the proto-jazz of dances like the cakewalk and its capering steps.

Thibaud and Cortot miss only in "Minstrels." Thibaud treats the piece as mere grotesquerie and so distorts the rhythm that Cortot can't follow him -- yet another classical musician condescending to jazz. However, they play the other works magnificently. I can't think of a better version of the Franck sonata. They manage to convince you that Franck isn't really a klutz and handle the padding of the work with concentration and conviction. Concentration and elegance characterize their Fauré -- certainly one of the top five recordings of this work I've heard. It presents the composer's surface modesty while allowing its depths to come through. The Debussy sonata is a fine reading, even though it holds on to its secrets. I haven't heard a more penetrating account. Keep in mind that the score was still relatively new and "advanced" when the duo recorded it in 1929.

The other recordings come from 1927-31. Producer Mark Obert-Thorn transferred them from shellacs. There is a bit of hiss and swish, but for the most part, he has cleaned up the sound without losing the timbre of the instruments. Cortot's playing comes through in all its tremendous subtlety. Thibaud commits fully to every work but "Minstrels." Breathe the genius of France.

S.G.S. (May 2012)