The Europadisc Review
March 2019

In recent years violinist Alina Ibragimova and pianist Cédric Tiberghien have established themselves as among the brightest stars of the Hyperion label’s impressive catalogue. That reputation was boosted recently by their critically acclaimed cycle of Mozart violin sonatas, and all their releases, whether solo or in duo partnership have been met with widespread praise. Among their earlier collaborations was a splendid 2011 disc coupling Ravel’s complete music for violin and piano (the Tzigane, Berceuse and two sonatas) with the Violin Sonata by Belgian composer Guillaume Lekeu, while in 2015 Ibragimova released a hugely impressive account of Eugène Ysaÿe’s Sonatas for solo violin.

Now the duo continue their exploration of turn-of-the-century Franco-Belgian violin repertoire with a disc whose linking theme is Ysaÿe: Franck’s celebrated Violin Sonata in A major was a wedding present for Ysaÿe in 1886, and some twenty years later a request from the violinist resulted in Louis Vierne’s Violin Sonata in G minor. Coupled with Ysaÿe’s own Poème élégiaque of 1893 they make an absorbing and compelling programme that is by no means overshadowed by the famous Franck work.

Those who associate Ysaÿe with violin acrobatics may well be taken aback by the poised intensity and structural cogency of the opening Poème élégiaque, a work inspired by the tomb scene from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. At nearly 15 minutes in length, this is a substantial single-movement work. Ibragimova and Tiberghien impart to it a sombre nobility and bearing combined with passion and a tremendous feeling for colour and nuance in the central section of the ternary structure, where the piano pedal notes suggests tolling bells as Romeo looks on at Juliet’s apparently lifeless form. Both are capable of coaxing from their instruments a range of tone from the most limpid and fragile to the most heartrendingly forceful, all the while maintaining superb technical control.

Similar qualities are in evidence in their account of the Franck Sonata, which from the outset has an extraordinary clarity to it, as if the music were lit from within. Ibragimova produces a marvellously light tone from her 1775 Anselmo Bellosio violin, while intelligent pedalling from Tiberghien produces mellow support without clouding textures. That same feeling of clear-headed virtuosity spills over into the Allegro second movement, which is brisk and often wild but never hurried. The Recitativo-Fantasia third movement has a tangibly operatic sense of involvement to it, the violinist here very much the protagonist, while the canonic finale is tremendously purposeful.

It is to the credit of both Vierne and his performers on the present disc that his Violin Sonata emerges so strongly even beside Franck’s masterpiece. With interesting harmonic structuring and an impulsive energy that seems at times to look forward to Poulenc, this is a thoroughly engaging work, and here it receives a spellbinding performance. Once again, clarity and brightness are matched by a keen feeling for colour and beautifully-judged pacing (not least in the tender Andante second movement).

On their own these three works would have made an impressive enough disc, but the addition of the Nocturne of 1911 by the eighteen-year-old Lili Boulanger really is the cherry on the cake. It glances back to the previous century even as it looks forward to a new French musical landscape with a closing quotation from Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune, and it’s just the sort of gesture that turns an already great disc into an outstanding one.

As ever, Hyperion do both artists and music proud, from the exceptionally vivid yet warm recording produced by Andrew Keener and engineered by Simon Eadon, to the booklet notes by Roger Nichols and the intriguing cover art (Femme au bord de l’eau, 1911) by Belgian symbolist painter Léon Spilliaert. This is a release that will surely further enhance Ibragimova’s and Tiberghien’s reputations as among today’s most intelligent and imaginative artists, and it will appeal to chamber music lovers everywhere.