FRANCK: Violin Sonata in A. SAINT-SAËNS: Violin Sonata No. 1 in d. RAVEL: Violin Sonata (1923-27). Sarah Chang, violin; Lars Vogt, piano.
EMI 57679 2 (F) {DDD} TT: 68:46

Haut cuisine. I believe I may have mentioned that the French musical nineteenth century is an almost total loss for me, with the major exception of Berlioz and a couple of other pieces here and there. For me, very little interesting happens until we get to Massenet, Fauré, Chabrier, and Debussy. It's a long time to wait. The disc represents to me the struggle of French composers to break free from German influence to something individual and worthwhile, as well as the final triumph.

Saint-Saëns's music stands for, largely, accommodation -- the musical Vichy. Indeed, he was just as successful in Germany as in France, which means he enjoyed a huge European success. Saint-Saëns writes suavely, elegantly, even at times brilliantly, but the feelings don't run all that deep. His first violin sonata is beautifully made, on a phrase-by-phrase basis, although it doesn't really hang together at a thematic level. He tends to smooth over the joins so that you tend not to notice that the first and second subjects of the first movement, for example, lovely as they are, seem to belong to different pieces. Saint-Saëns has immense craft as well as consideration that his listener not hit a speed bump, so to speak. But he applies the craft as if on "automatic." You appreciate the craft but miss the brilliant or poetic imaginative stroke. Just compare this violin sonata to any by Brahms or Beethoven, and you feel the lack even more.

Franck's only violin sonata comes as a considerable step up. At any rate, it appeals to me far more than most Franck -- including the symphony -- really toward the front of the line, as far as Franck's output goes. Most people ooh and ah over the last movement because it's a "canon." Actually, it always comes over to me at the same level as Sam & Dave call and response. Nevertheless, I like the tune very much, one of the composer's best, with its unexpected Fauré-like harmonies, and it rounds off the sonata very well. However, I reserve my real enthusiasm for the other movements, especially the first, with its apparent presage of Debussy in the first theme. Compared to much of Franck, the work proceeds much more subtly, with less obvious joinery. Franck for once uses his cyclic form in an almost "botanical" way -- the delicate growth of a flower, rather than the clunks and bumps of something like the symphony. He varies his cells just enough, shape as well as rhetorical emphasis, so that they don't seem stuck on, like post-it notes on a refrigerator door. Thus, the main idea of the first movement becomes a subsidiary phrase in the second-movement scherzo, while a subsidiary idea of the first movement receives more emphasis in the scherzo's Sturm und Drang. The slow movement is the most interesting. There's such a sense of struggle with form -- missing from the Saint-Saëns (or any Saint-Saëns) -- which adds to its fascination. It's so sectional that you wonder whether the thing will fall apart. It never does. It may run rough and brisk, but it definitely takes you along. It strikes me as a very French Romantic homage to a Bach fantasia -- the slow, stately opening, the recitative for the violin, and the builds from sparse to full at the beginning of each new bit.

I can't think of too many violin sonatas I prefer to the Ravel, including the ones by Brahms. It always surprises me to be reminded that Ravel wrote it almost as an act of defiance. He thought the sonorities of the violin and the piano totally mismatched. Rather than smooth over the differences, he emphasizes them, and he's such a brilliant contrapuntalist (something most people don't associate with him) that he brings it off. The sonata comes from his last period, the Twenties. It took him four years, and among other things, he destroyed the original finale and created a whole new one. The exotic always drew Ravel -- gypsy music in Tzigane, the "Spanish" music like the Alborada del gracioso and Bolero, the Viennese waltz, Russian music in À la manière de Borodine, and of course the "Madagascar" songs. After the First World War, like so many Europeans, he fell in love with jazz. Unlike a lot of them, however, he didn't often isolate it as such -- the foxtrot from L'Enfant et les sortilèges comes to mind -- but usually incorporated it into his general musical vocabulary. The violin sonata shows both tendencies. In the second movement, titled "Blues," Ravel evokes jazz through blue notes and riffs, rather than actually writing a real blues. Furthermore, there are a considerable number of measures that have nothing to do with blues in that work, measures that Ravel indeed could have written at any time in his career. The brilliant counterpoint appears right at the beginning, with a supple, insinuating theme that has both players often phrasing against, rather than with each other. The sonata's design is a bit unusual, since there's no true slow movement. The "blues" middle movement functions as a mostly-quiet scherzo, while the finale is a whirlwind, very strongly related to the finale of the G-major piano concerto. People usually talk of Ravel as surface, possibly because the surface is so fantastic, in both senses. But the music sings of psychological complexity. It almost always gets inside you, like a basic fairy tale. This work, the slow movement to the piano concerto, the Trois Chansons, the Introduction et Allegro, L'Enfant, the last song of Don Quichotte à Dulcinée, among so many others, are masterpieces that not only sparkle, but speak wisely.

Sarah Chang was a good violinist at an early age. But I always felt that it was the precocity rather than the actual achievement that got her the attention. Well, she's older now and has gotten much, much better -- indeed, one of the best around. All of this music demands a performer with an aristocratic musical mind. Chang and Vogt deliver hands down the best Franck sonata I've heard. In fact, they managed to raise my genuine admiration for the piece. The Saint-Saëns they play as well as anybody, including Heifetz and Bay. I sense tremendous preparation and care behind all these performances. It's not that they play as if one mind, but they sound as if they're always listening to one another and are prepared to respond nothing less than perfectly. In most chamber partnerships, the image is that of conversation. Here, it's practically slow-dance. If I have nit-picks, it's that I'm not sure of the "weight" of Chang's sound for the Big Stuff, like the "Kreutzer" sonata or the Tchaikovsky concerto, or whether she would ever let herself go or risk something over-the-top. It could simply be the program she's chosen, although Oistrakh, for example, plays the Ravel with more fire. Make no mistake, however: this is one gorgeous CD.

S.G.S. (December 2004)