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Hyperion Records

CDA67872 - Fauré: Cello Sonatas
Landscape at Cagnes by Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841-1919)
Private Collection / Photo © Lefevre Fine Art Ltd, London / Bridgeman Art Library, London

Recording details: October 2010
Concert Hall, Wyastone Estate, Monmouth, United Kingdom
Produced by Rachel Smith
Engineered by Simon Eadon
Release date: January 2012
Total duration: 63 minutes 45 seconds


'Gerhardt and Licad sound as free as air, intellectually confident, full of verve, with niceties of balance and intensities never an issue; a convincing frame of colour, movement and sound in place for every movement, every piece' (Gramophone)

'Visionary performers … one has a powerful sense of Alban Gerhardt's compelling grasp of architecture' (BBC Music Magazine)

'Gerhardt and Licad make a particularly fine duo here, working emotionally in unison, sensing the music's contours with like mind, breathing as one' (The Daily Telegraph)

'Like the works themselves, Gerhardt's playing and that of the pianist Cecile Licad is full of subtleties, the half-tones and inflections that make the chamber music of Fauré's final decade so elusive and fragile' (The Guardian)

'An arrestingly beautiful survey … this repertoire has been explored frequently and by some of the best, but seldom more persuasively than here … from every standpoint, Gerhardt's accounts of the sonatas seem exceptional, with their assured technical mastery and uncanny depth of insight … magnificent cello playing from Gerhardt, empathetically supportive accompaniments from Licad and a wonderfully natural and atmospheric recording to boot … recommended' (International Record Review)

'Both cello sonatas are rolled out effortlessly and with an abundance of colour … other short cello works, the delicious Élégie included, pad out this sizeable, and very satisfying, offering … a super recording' (The Scotsman)

'Alban Gerhardt has arrived at the ideal marriage of Fauré's refinement, essential reticence and the passion that lies just beneath the surface of the two cello sonatas' (Yorkshire Post)

Cello Sonatas
Allegro deciso  [5'38]
Andante  [7'00]
Allegro commodo  [7'28]
Allegro  [5'36]
Andante  [7'42]
Allegro vivo  [4'41]

Following their triumphant Casals Encores disc, Alban Gerhardt and Cecile Licad are reunited for Fauré’s music for cello and piano. The two cello sonatas are among the masterpieces of the cello repertoire, looking back to the nineteenth century but also with an edginess that may well reflect the time in which they were written—during and immediately after the First World War. Remarkably, Fauré was in his seventies by the time he wrote them. There’s some debate as to how fast the last movement of the first sonata should go—so Alban Gerhardt has recorded two alternative versions, to be programmed to the listener’s taste.

Alongside the sonatas are some of Fauré’s most seductive bon-bons, including the famous Sicilienne and Élégie, and the so-called Papillon (so-named at his publisher’s insistence and much to Fauré’s annoyance—he hated fluffy titles).

Alban Gerhardt is of course a Hyperion regular and this is his ninth album for the label.

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Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
In 1880, the thirty-five-year-old Gabriel Fauré was still on a lowly rung of the Paris musical ladder, earning a mere 3,000 francs a year as choirmaster of the Madeleine, and supplementing this with teaching that took him on endless journeys round the city and its environs. A southerner, born at Pamiers in the Ariège, who had received his musical education not at the Paris Conservatoire but at the less fashionable École Niedermeyer, he was essentially an outsider—interesting, talented, but you know, not really one of us …

But by now some of his songs were making headway in the salons (a first collection of twenty of them had appeared the previous year), and he had had more emphatic success with his work for chorus and orchestra Les Djinns, and with his First Violin Sonata and First Piano Quartet. String instruments were clearly much in his mind, and in April 1880 the first two movements of a Violin Concerto were performed. It seems likely that this work, never completed, began with its slow movement; the Élégie Fauré wrote this same year, premiered in Saint-Saëns’s house on 21 June, was similarly envisaged as the slow movement of a sonata. Why it should then have waited three years for publication is unknown—perhaps it was just that it took Fauré that long to realize the sonata wouldn’t work. At any rate the Élégie was an immediate success, not surprisingly since it embraces a wide area of emotion—pathos, delicacy, virtuosity, heroics, and a final page of beautifully judged détente.

Following its publication by Julien Hamelle, Fauré was immediately commissioned to write a second piece for cello, perhaps as a lighter counterpart. But again there was a delay in publication, this time of fourteen years until 1898. On this occasion some responsibility might lie with the increasingly sour relations between composer and publisher, whose incompetence extended to actually losing manuscripts and who insisted on calling the piece first Libellules (Dragonflies), then Papillon (Butterfly); to which Fauré, no lover of fancy titles, retorted: ‘Butterfly or Dung Fly, call it whatever you like.’ The five sections of Papillon contain contrasting material: the odd-numbered ones might equally be a French ‘Flight of the Bumblebee’, pre-empting Rimsky-Korsakov’s 1899 version; in the two enclosed sections the cello sings a lyrical, symmetrical song that finally takes wing over one of Fauré’s favourite descending bass lines.

The Romance too was long delayed in its publication. Starting as a piece for cello and organ at some unknown date, it was finally brought out in 1894 and premiered that year in Geneva with Fauré playing the piano part. In transferring the accompaniment, Fauré articulated the original crotchet chords as semiquavers, but the solo part remains unchanged except for the very end, where the cello now hangs on to the final high A instead of making a two-octave descent. The opening of the tune recurs in the wonderful ‘Nocturne’ from Shylock, and again in the song ‘Soir’. Even if here there is no nocturnal reference, the piece conforms to an archetype of the meditative Fauré.

It was this side of Fauré that sometimes made his teacher Saint-Saëns impatient with him, wanting him to exhibit more drive and focus in forwarding his career. But Fauré was hard-headed enough not to waste good material. So, when in 1893 a production of Molière’s Le bourgeois gentilhomme folded, leaving Fauré’s incidental music unheard, the composer took one piece from it and in 1898 recycled it twice, first in the London production of Maeterlinck’s Pelléas et Mélisande, then as a Sicilienne for various combinations. It is a delicate little piece, ending with a subtle juxtaposition of the keys of G minor and E flat major in which the main sections have been couched. It is dedicated to the English cellist William Henry Squire, who in 1898 was a member of the Queen’s Hall Orchestra and later toured with the contralto Clara Butt.

Fauré’s last short piece for cello and piano was the Sérénade, composed in 1908, possibly as a gift to Casals on his engagement to the Portuguese cellist Guilhermina Suggia (the two were never married). The piece is unequivocally middle-period Fauré, with its unsettled harmonies, interweaving melodic lines and refusal to fall into tidy compartments. Casals wrote to the composer: ‘The Sérénade! it’s delicious—every time I play it, it seems new, it’s so attractive.’ And indeed it reveals its beauties only with repeated playing or listening.

By 1908 Fauré had already started work on his only opera, Pénélope, and his increasing attraction to longer structures can also be observed in the way individual songs now give way to cycles (La chanson d’Ève, 1906–10; Le jardin clos, 1914; Mirages, 1919; L’horizon chimérique, 1921). The two cello sonatas of 1917 and 1921 conform with this pattern.

Another feature of Fauré’s late works is that for many of them he went back and took themes in unpublished pieces from his earlier life and reworked them. In the D minor Sonata, composed between May and August 1917, the opening theme of the first movement is based on that from the Allegro deciso of the unpublished Symphony in D minor of 1884, now rhythmically tightened and made more forceful. Clearly we are in a different world from the smoothly gliding cello of the Élégie. Fauré’s son Philippe, writing after his father’s death, even touched on his deafness as a possible cause: ‘One has the feeling that the strings sound somewhat lower than he intended, that they grate and run out of energy.’ But Philippe, born in 1889, had grown up with his father’s middle-period works. To the modern ear, energy is precisely what this movement possesses, and in abundance.

The Andante presents a peaceful contrast, alternating between two themes: a dotted, leaping one, on the lines of a sarabande, and a closer, more regular one which, in Robert Orledge’s words, ‘is perhaps the nearest Fauré comes to Ravel’s combination of purity and melancholy’. In one of his few concessions to the colouristic activities of his French contemporaries, he decorates this second theme with bell-like echoes in the piano’s right hand, rather in the manner of his First Nocturne of c1875. The music rises to a central climax, then slowly subsides, the opening G minor now turned to major.

The tempo of the final Allegro commodo is the subject of some dispute. The marking crotchet=80 on the first edition is not confirmed by any autograph source and, by the consent of cellists in general, is impossibly slow. (Tortelier, who had practised the movement at this speed on his own, was won over to a faster tempo by Éric Heidsieck—on the day of their recording!) On the present recording, the listener is offered the choice of slower and faster versions (though both quicker than crotchet=80). It could be said that an emphasis on the ‘allegro’ rather than the ‘commodo’ reveals the sunny temper of the movement, even if more care then has to be taken over the clarity of the various canonic passages. It may also help the listener during the many moments of ‘harmonic drift’ so typical of the late Fauré: at a faster tempo, landmarks appear more often. On the other hand, a slower tempo does have its charms. Effectively, the whole movement is one long development section, with the triumphant ending signalled from some way back.

On 1 October 1920, the seventy-five-year-old Fauré left his post as Director of the Paris Conservatoire, under pressure from the authorities because of his deafness and failing health. His feelings were mixed. ‘He suffered deeply but silently’, wrote Philippe. But the previous July Fauré wrote to his wife that ‘I’m savouring the idea of my deliverance’. In the four years of life left to him, he completed a song cycle, two piano pieces and three chamber works, all of the highest quality.

He wrote the Second Cello Sonata between March and November 1921. As in the First Sonata, he obeys the rules to the extent of using two contrasting themes: the first a scalic idea that turns back on itself, the second based on a descending third. But instead of presenting these some way apart, as first and second subjects, they are contrasted from the beginning and, again, Fauré uses canon (albeit freely) as a means of increasing the tension (track 4 from 2'01''). In the general flux, the arrival of the recapitulation (3'05'') is so subtly managed as to be almost unnoticed.

Like the Sicilienne, the Andante was taken from another project, and was in fact the nucleus from which the sonata grew. At the beginning of 1921, Fauré received a state commission to write a work for the ceremony to be held on 5 May at Les Invalides to mark the 100th anniversary of the death of Napoleon—not, one might have thought, much in his line, and he admitted to his wife that he found ‘the subject and the occasion thoroughly intimidating’. But he complied. And then the resulting Chant funéraire, duly orchestrated for the Garde républicaine by its conductor, obviously remained in its composer’s head. Would it never be heard again? He determined that it would. In the measured repeated chords of the accompaniment and the long majestic cello lines it looks back to the successful Élégie, now coloured with more enigmatic harmonies.

In the finale the two contrasting themes are separated in traditional fashion, the first a syncopated, almost jazzy tune, the second a tongue-in-cheek chorale. As in the First Sonata, the piano, playing in every bar of every movement, is the leader of things harmonic, while the cello rides imperiously over all its excentricities. In the variety and quality of his invention, the aged Fauré was every bit the equal of Verdi—or Elliott Carter. The day after the Sonata’s premiere on 13 May 1922, Vincent d’Indy wrote to his old friend: ‘I want to tell you that I’m still under the spell of your beautiful Cello Sonata … The Andante is a masterpiece of sensitivity and expression and I love the finale, so perky and delightful … How lucky you are to stay young like that!’

Roger Nichols © 2012

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