French Impressions: César Franck, Sonata in A major for violin and piano, M.8; Maurice Ravel, Sonata for violin and piano; Camille Saint-Saëns, Sonata No. 1 in D minor for violin and piano, Op. 75; Joshua Bell, violin (1713 Gibson ex-Huberman Stradivarius), Jeremy Denk, piano (Steinway D), SONY Classical 88697820262, © 2012, TT 67:19, $11.98.
Joshua Bell and Jeremy Denk are both graduates of Indiana University’s School of Music, but they were not classmates: Bell was graduating as Denk was beginning, although because of Denk’s graying hair, apparent in the numerous informal, natural, and relaxed photos that grace this CD's accompanying booklet, one might think the age order was the inverse. Both studied with legendary masters: Bell with Josef Gingold, a student of Eugène Ysaÿe, dedicatee of the Franck – it was the composer’s wedding present to him and he premièred it – and Denk, with György Sebök. They sort-of chased each other for years, each hearing the other in various places all over the world, but only played together for the first time in 2004 at the Spoleto Festival. They have performed together over 80 times since, including in recitals where these works were on the program, but this is their first recording together. It is also the first recording to be made in the ca. 300-seat recital hall of the Musical Instrument Museum that opened in Phoenix, AZ, in April 2010. Its producer was Grammy-winner Steven Epstein. Although often classified as Late-Romantic, both the Franck and the Saint-Saëns are in reality more Neo-Classical in compositional structure and style, and the Ravel is a cross between that style and modernism. There’s nothing "Impressionistic" about any of these works, but "French Impressions" makes a "catchy" album title and to a certain degree suggests that it is their "take" on these gems, different from the run-of-the-mill.
There’s nothing relaxed about the playing, however, but, thankfully, neither is there anything overly dramatic and overtly emotional about it, as some musicians are wont to demonstrate with these works, among the most frequently played and recorded in the violin sonata repertoire. Which is not to say that fireworks do not appear when they should, particularly in the finale of the Saint-Saëns – it, like many of the composer’s works, ends in flashy display. The Franck dates from 1886, the Ravel from 1923-’27, and the Saint-Saëns from 1872; playing order is wisely chronological, although the program notes discuss the Franck ahead of the Saint-Saëns. Competition for the potential purchaser’s attention and dollar includes some 158 other recordings of the Franck, some 62 of the Ravel, and some 21 of the Saint-Saëns; only one other offers all three, however: Sarah Chang and Lars Vogt’s from 2004, now apparently only available as a download. Of course, fans of Bell and/or Denk will be easily persuaded, but readers will want to know what sets this undertaking apart from other great ones, contemporary or earlier and/or legendary.
The program notes by Denk are astute and perceptive, making comments about the French playing style – note especially his description of how Sebök produced the opening chords the first time Denk heard him play it – which is very different from the Austro-German one, more intellectual, less emotional, distinctly not heart-on-the-sleeve. This style is largely observed in the performances, and for me, it’s a major recommendation. This is a very considered rendering of the works, without any excessive flashiness. These musicians are masters and have no need to put anything on display other than their expertise. From the photos, it appears that Bell is performing from memory – there’s no music stand in sight, while Denk has a score on the piano’s music stand, no proof that he’s reading it, of course; both have no doubt studied and performed the works frequently enough that they have absorbed and internalized their content and spirit. Readers who like flashy playing will likely find this rendition too subdued; it’s actually more authentic. Bell and Denk have thought this through carefully.
One surprise in the accompanying booklet is the absence of artist bios. One might think this unthinkable, especially from world-class performers who always seem to be inclined to be self-promoting. But in today’s world, printed bios become so rapidly out-of-date that it makes more sense to save paper and space and simply provide their URLs: Joshua Bell and Jeremy Denk. Other missing information is, however, less felicitous: nothing is said about either instrument, and while one can easily find that relevant to Bell’s violin in the aforementioned online bio, such is not the case for the piano: Denk doesn’t take his with him when he travels!
All three of these composers undoubtedly most frequently played Érard instruments; they rarely played and certainly did not own Steinways. Ravel never owned one of any other make; his last one from 1908 is still in his home, now the Maurice Ravel Museum. Saint-Saëns owned an 1846 Pleyel, but he played nearly every make imaginable in his extensive travels and concertizing career; in several instances in performances in Great Britain, Érards were substituted for English makes that were in the performance halls at his request, so it is known to be one of the makes he preferred. There seems to be no information about Franck owning a piano; he was, of course, more famous as an organist and taught organ at the Paris Conservatoire, where Érards were the official pianos at that time, and wrote fairly little for the piano.
Readers will wonder why I bring this up. The tones of French instruments are very different from those of a modern Steinway, warmer, more mellow and richer, with much greater differentiation among the registers – the bass has one tone, the tenor another, the alto yet another, and the soprano another still, and the composers were writing for these conditions. Érards were also still parallel strung, even as late as the time of the composition of the Ravel – his was. Cross, or over-stringing, requires changes to the tones of the strings because the bass ones that pass over the tenor and alto ones sound in sympathy when the latter are struck. They were also still wooden-framed with metal plates fastened at each end to attach the strings and tension bars parallel to the straight side of the case fastened from above to prevent the frame from bending – less metal and more wood means more warm resonance. Thus, playing this music on a Steinway to attempt to create a similar sound is far more complex than just sitting at the keyboard and depressing the keys. Denk manages this very well, for my ears more impressively than is achieved in any other recording I have heard. I know of no recording in which an Érard is used but heard the Franck live last fall with an 1893 Érard. An inquiry to the MIM as to the presence in its collection of French pianos from this time period in playing condition that might have been used for the recording remains unanswered.
I am always leery when the current superstars issue their take on the chestnuts of the repertoire. This one is truly special.
Note: This recording has been included in Arkiv Music's Best Recordings of 2012 - the first, indeed, on that list.