What a glorious concept album! The Parisian salons of the late nineteenth century were idyllic melting pots for composers, poets, dramatists and writers. Proust's description of this world in a quote from La Gaulois (May 31, 1894) is the starting point for Steven Isserlis' own exemplary booklet note for this generous (83-minute) release. On the disc, Isserlis is joined by the stunning pianist Connie Shih; not a name I knew particularly before hearing this, but one I hope to re-encounter.
One of Proust's lovers was the Venezuelan-born Reynaldo Hahn (1874-1947). He came to France aged three. Proust was a an" every note is a word - or a cry!". Hahn's Variations chantantes sur un air ancien of 1905 is a little-known gem that exudes calm, restraint and, above all, sophistication:
Gabriel Fauré simply had to be on this disc; another composer admired by Proust (which reminds me, we must do a post on Fauré's piano music ... paging Germain Thyssens-Valentin ....). The first piece by Fauré we hear is the lesser-known, so let's quote that one: the 1894 Romance, Op. 69, a reworking of an earlier Andante for cello and organ. You'll hear it is typical Fauré in its almost Mozartian sense of endless invention and flow, sprinkled with Parisian fragrance (Fauré's Élégie, Op. 24, of 1880 is its better-known companion here.):
When we come to Saint-Saëns, we come to one of the masterpieces of the repertoire; the First Cello Sonata in C minor, op. 32 (1872); Isserlis and Shih include the original finale as a fourth track to this. This is not the frothy Saint-Saëns we know and love; it was written in the wake of personal tragedy (the death of his great-aunt, Charlotte). The second movement quotes Schumann's song "Wehmut," the ninth song from the Op. 39 Liederkreis. Here's Dorothea Röschmann and Mitsuko Uchida in the Schumann:
... and here's the Saint-Saëns slow movement, Andante sostenuto e tranquillo:
The finale of this work caused some problems. Saint-Saëns' own mother threatened to disown the composer because of his fears for this work, and so Saint-Saëns re-wrote his finale. Isserlis and Shih generously provide both, with the original finale offered as an addendum.
We approach the meat of César Franck's Sonata in A (most often heard on the violin) via two of that composer's students: a "Lamento" by Henri Duparc (the second movement of his A minor Cello Sonata); and Augusta Holmès's Récitatif et Chant (from the cantata La Vision de la Reine of 1895) in an arrangement by Isserlis. Holmès appears to have been something of a hedonist (so she fitted in well). In this cantata, the cello acts as an extra character, a minstrel. Taking that solo role as his cue, Isserlis has fashioned a sort of sophisticated pot-pourri after the Holmès orignal:
Of all the works on this disc, the Franck A major Sonata requires a pianist of advanced gifts; it certainly receives that here in the form of Connie Shih, who is magisterial in her command of the tricky piano part. Isserlis plays beautifully: his instrument is the "Marquis de Corberon" Stradivaius cello of 1726, loaned by the Royal Academy of Music, London. Proust viewed Franck as the most important composer except for Beethoven. Perhaps Proust's idea that "Franck's most characteristic feature is joy ... joy extracted from elemental suffering, that moves and lives" applies powerfully to this Sonata. Let's hear the first movement in the cello version (arranged by Jules Delsart):
Let's hear this agianst the whole sonata on violin (this is my preferred version for what it's worth, Isaac Stern and Alexander Zhidkin from a CBS LP (small warning: the music doesn't start until just under 20 seconds into the video):
A performance of the Franck Sonata can easily rest on whether the pianist can handle the demands of the second movement Scherzo. Listen to these torrents of notes, and marvel at Shih's brilliance:
What I really do love about Isserlis and Shih's performance though is their finale, which absolutely reflects Franck's marking of "Allegretto poco mosso". It has a wondrous flow to it, absolutely unhurried, perfectly easy-going. The ideal way to end the disc (and at 83 minutes, no space for a programmed encore anyway, one assumes):
All in all, 83 minutes of Frenchified excellence!