Any new recording from Alina Ibragimova and Cédric Tiberghien usually takes under an hour to travel from postbag to stereo in this office, but this one spent a couple of days sitting on the future releases shelf before getting its moment to shine—lovely though it is, César Franck’s Violin Sonata is one of the most recorded works in the violin/piano repertoire, and I think the general feeling was that we had more obscure fish to fry for a little while before giving this one a whirl. But their approach to the piece is so radical and refreshing that those famous opening bars steal in almost incognito, setting up a sense of defamiliarisation so effectively that once the movement’s in full swing you’re primed to listen to this late Romantic war-horse with properly-cleansed ears.
Canny programming helps: the two main works here were both written for the great Belgian violinist-composer Eugène Ysaÿe (the Franck was composed as a wedding-present for him in 1886, whilst the Louis Vierne sonata was commissioned by Ysaÿe around a decade later), and it’s with Ysaÿe himself that this fascinating album opens. The mysterious, crepuscular Poème élégiaque dates from the early 1890s and takes the tomb-scene in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet as its inspiration, the violinist tuning the G-string down a tone to evoke the gloomy atmosphere of the Capulets’ crypt as the piano imitates passing-bells in the distance, and the effect of the re-tuning on the violin’s entire timbre is properly uncanny (until I checked the booklet-notes I was convinced that Ibragimova had swapped her instrument for a viola).
It’s from this eerie, slightly other-worldly sound-scape that the Franck eventually emerges, and what follows is equally ethereal and exquisite: Ibragimova and Tiberghien treat the entire work with a lucidity and delicacy which looks forward to Debussy’s Violin Sonata of three decades later, and indeed put me very much in mind of Isabelle Faust and Alexander Melnikov’s marvellous recording of that work a few months ago. The music’s Romanticism is never short-changed, but rather than powering through the big climaxes with muscle and full-throttle vibrato the pair simply give them room to unfold naturally, and the improvisatory freedom of the third movement seems to infuse the performance as a whole. Tiberghien’s passage-work throughout has a silvery clarity that wouldn’t be out of place in Haydn or Mozart, and the final movement unfurls with simple, almost folksy charm that’s utterly beguiling.
Whilst the Franck sonata has perhaps suffered from overexposure, the Vierne is woefully underrepresented on disc (with just four other recordings in the current catalogue), but Ibragimova and Tiberghien despatch it with such flair, wit and affection that it’s difficult to fathom its comparative neglect. The tarantella-like opening really dances, and the balletic scherzo is similarly light on its feet, whilst the long slow movement is graced by some ravishingly soft-focus playing from Tiberghien that again foreshadows Debussy. There are occasional thematic echoes of Franck in the first and third movements in particular (the young Louis Vierne had won a violin prize at the Paris Conservatoire in the same year that Franck composed his sonata, and indeed Ysaÿe went on to programme the two works together in recital), but the work is no pale imitation and it yields little to its predecessor in terms of singing lyricism and melodic inspiration.
The album is rounded off by an elusive but captivating little Nocturne by the young Lili Boulanger, written in 1911 when she was still in her teens and offering a fascinating snapshot of a young composer soaking up the last rays of Romanticism but poised to head off in a very different direction; it’s a neat and effective summary of both artists’ approach to the entire programme, and whets the appetite for more early twentieth-century French music from the pair. I don’t know about you, but now that last year’s plethora of anniversary recordings is fading into the distance, I think I’m about ready to hear them take on the Debussy sonata …