Fresh Performance of Franck’s Sonata for Piano and Violin Keeps the Magic Alive

Amir Mandel
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Isabelle Faust.
Isabelle Faust.Credit: Marco Borggreve
Amir Mandel

Cesar Franck wrote his Sonata for Piano and Violin as a wedding gift for the violinist Eugene Ysae, a Belgian who had taken up residence in France, like the composer himself. The work had its premiere on September 26, 1886, at the wedding, on the instruments that were available at the moment. Following a quick rehearsal, it was played by the groom and the pianist Marie-Leontine Bordes-Pene, a guest at the event. The two also played the sonata at its first official public performance, on December 16, 1886, at the Museum of Modern Art in Brussels.

That concert began in mid-afternoon and went on until dusk. Artificial lighting was prohibited in the museum, but neither the artists nor the audience wanted to stop. The composer Vincent d’Indy, a pupil of Franck’s, who was in the audience, noted, “The public was requested to leave, butrefused to budge. Ysae was heard to strike his music stand with his bow, exclaiming ‘get on, get on.’ And then, unheard-of marvel, the two artists, plunged in gloom in which nothing could be distinguished, performed the last three movements from memory Music, wondrous and alone, held sovereign sway in the darkness of the night. The miracle will never be forgotten.”

The magic doesn’t wear off in the light and with a sound system, 130 years later. Though Franck was revered as a teacher, recognition of him as a composer was late in coming, and not many of his works are contained in the central repertoire. However, the Sonata for Piano and Violin is one of the best-loved chamber music pieces. Many recordings exist, and there are also arrangements for cello, flute, saxophone, tuba, organ and chorus, and orchestra. My own clear preference is for the piano-and-violin version. Standouts among the abundance of recordings are those by the pianist Radu Lupu and the violinist Kyung-Wha Chung (Decca); by Jean-Philippe Collard with Augustin Dumay (Erato); by Khatia Buniatishvili with Renaud Capucon; and by Martin Roscoe and Jennifer Pike (Chandos).

Romantic mystery

Now a new album, on the Harmonia Mundi label, offers a new and riveting experience. Alexander Melnikov plays an Erard piano from approximately 1885, and Isabelle Faust adapts the timbre of her 1710 Stradivarius to the style of the period in which Franck wrote the sonata. The instruments create a new world of sound, and the initial impression is influenced by the coloring, which is soft and clean, and less glossy than the sound we’ve become accustomed to in this work. As one continues to listen, and the ear becomes attuned, a deep Romantic expressiveness and mysteriousness can be discerned within the delicate tone, together with a fine construction that underscores the sonata’s dazzling circular structure.

Also included on the album is a work by one of Franck’s outstanding pupils. Ernest Chausson was born in 1855 to a wealthy family, studied law to please his building-contractor father, and then switched to music. He died at the age of 44 when he crashed into a wall while cycling, and for part of his life suffered from depression. Still, he composed several beautiful works, among them this special Concert for Violin, Piano and String Quartet. It evokes a variety of older musical forms, such as the Baroque concerto grosso, and offers chromatic harmonies that augur the musical language of the composers of the next generation, such as Debussy. Melnikov and Faust link up with the Salagon Quartet for a concentrated, thrilling performance that is enhanced by the excellent sound engineering.