Retrospective: French Sonatas
Available for the first time on Champs Hill Records, violinist Ittai Shapira’s 1999 disc was recorded in the Music Room at Champs Hill and initially released on the Quartz label
Bringing together sonatas by Delius (Op Posth), Ravel (No 2 in G Major) and Franck (A Major), Shapira was fascinated to explore what “french’ sound really meant to him, along with pianist Jeremy Denk.
Shapira says " While heavily associated as part of the French repertoire, each piece has its own distinct sound, while integrating influences and reaching to other cultures: Blues, Gamelan, and British. A distinct sound that stays in one's memory while bridging cultures is what I aim for to this day, 17 years after recording these works, both as performer and composer.”
Ittai Shapira is both a violinist and a composer. Described by the NY Times as “an Israeli dynamo with a flourishing solo violin career” he has performed widely with international orchestras. He has recently premiered and recorded his Concerto for Violin and Cello, “Sephardic Journeys”, coupled with his Violin and Clarinet Concerto, a multidisciplinary project in close collaboration with Sir Salman Rushdie and visual artist, Alexander Klingspor.
Jeremy Denk is one of America’s foremost pianists. Winner of a MacArthur "Genius" Fellowship, and the Avery Fisher Prize, Denk was recently elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Denk returns frequently to Carnegie Hall and has recently performed with the Chicago Symphony, New York Philharmonic, Los Angeles Philharmonic, San Francisco Symphony, and Cleveland Orchestra, as well as at the BBC Proms.
- Sleeve Notes
Delius’s modern reputation is founded primarily upon a series of evocative orchestral pieces, blending harmonic sensuality with a heightened instinct for piquant melody and instrumental colour. Yet underlying even the most dreamily poetic of his scores is an implacable structural logic that binds everything together. ‘The chief reason for the degeneration of present-day music lies in the fact that people want to get physical sensations from music more than anything else,’ Delius despaired in a 1920 edition of The Sackbut. ‘Emotion is out of date and intellect a bore…In an age of neurasthenics, music, like everything else, must be a stimulant, must be alcoholic, aphrodisiac, or it is no good.’
One of Delius’s most unstinting supporters, celebrated conductor Sir Thomas Beecham, summed up the situation in an Evening Standard article dated 13 January 1927 entitled Delius, the Neglected Genius: ‘It is the contemplative rather than dramatic strain which has delayed a fuller understanding of Delius,’ Beecham reasoned, ‘for even in art it is not easy for a man to make himself heard nowadays above the cackling clamour of mediocrity unless he shouts at the top of his voice all the time.’
Delius might never have become a composer had he continued running the Florida orange plantation bought specifically for him to manage by his father in 1882. After four years he could stand the tedium no longer and headed back across the Atlantic to study music full-time at the Leipzig Conservatory. Here, he rekindled his natural enthusiasm for all things Nordic through his friendship with Edvard Grieg, while visits to Paris awakened in him such a passion for French culture that in 1897 he settled permanently in the picturesque village of Grez-sur-Loing.
It was during this transitional period that Delius composed his first violin sonata in 1892, the red-letter year that also saw his first music appear in print – the Légende for violin and orchestra – and the completion of his first opera, Irmelin. Premiered informally in Paris the following year by 28-year-old Achille Rivarde (who had recently relinquished his leadership of the Lamoureux Orchestra) and pianist Harold Bauer (a former violin prodigy), Delius viewed the sonata as an accomplished apprentice work – it remained unpublished until 1977.
Driven by impassioned (Richard) Straussian virtuosity in the opening movement and the Norwegian lyricism of Delius’s beloved Grieg in the central Andante molto tranquillo and finale, the sonata possesses a powerful emotional immediacy and generic structural clarity that Delius’s later work almost studiously avoids.
Ravel’s music (like Delius’s) was a natural extension of his inner being. His fastidiousness over every aspect of his output was reflected in an obsession with appearing immaculately groomed and dressed at all times. He was a particularly keen follower of the latest fashions – one of his most prized possessions was a pair of black patent leather shoes.
Ravel’s love of all things mechanical is reflected in the clockwork precision and intricacy of his writing – Stravinsky once referred to him admiringly as ‘the most perfect of Swiss clockmakers’. He also possessed a magical, child-like sense of wonder and innocence – what one of his closest friends described as his ‘enjoyment in everything’ – and his nostalgia for things past extended to a delight in rethinking popular idioms of the 17th century, most notably the minuet.
Yet whatever Ravel’s love for the past, he also enjoyed being bang up-to-date. He shared contemporary obsessions with the Orient, dabbled in Impressionistic washes of colour and in his later music embraced American popular styles – the influence of jazz, ragtime and the blues is felt keenly in the Piano Concerto in G, the Sonata for Violin and Cello and the Violin Sonata of 1927.
Decimated and inconsolable following the terrors of the Great War, in 1921 Ravel cocooned himself in the emotional safety blanket of his home ‘Le Belvédère’, surrounding himself with objets d’art and mechanical toys designed primarily to recreate the sights and sounds of childhood. Two years later he began work on what would turn out to be his final chamber piece: the Violin Sonata.
Initially, ideas flowed with such uncharacteristic ease that Ravel went as far as to announce the work’s imminent London premiere by Jelly d’Aranyi, to whom his Tzigane had been dedicated. In the event, Ravel became dissatisfied with certain aspects of the sonata and the honour went instead to Georges Enesco. It was only following a two-year hiatus that Ravel returned to the work, consigning the original finale (of which he was nevertheless rather fond) to the flames. Encapsulating the tantalising restraint that lies at the heart of his creative thinking, the shimmering cool of the sonata’s opening Allegretto, gives way to the central Blues’ smoky decadence and the finale’s insatiable forward momentum.
If Ravel and Delius created soundworlds with their own unique harmonic and instrumental flavouring inherited from the French tradition, César Franck’s instinct for colour was honed initially in the organ loft and later as the result of falling under the spell of the New German School, spearheaded by Liszt and Wagner. Whereas Delius and Ravel tended in general towards descriptive titles, Franck believed fervently in the supremacy of the chorale, symphony and sonata.
A late developer, Franck was in his sixties before discovering his true creative voice. Until then, composing played second fiddle to his principal vocation as one of Europe’s leading organists and experts in organ construction. Starting out as a piano prodigy, he shunned the bright lights of a potential virtuoso career for the more parochial life of a church musician, becoming organist at St. Clotilde, Paris, in 1858.
When, four years later, Franck produced a set of six organ Pieces that won Liszt’s enthusiastic approval, he felt tempted to make the break as a full-time composer. Yet by now the 40-year-old musician was so deeply entrenched in French cultural life as both organist and pedagogue that such a dramatic change seemed unimaginable. When in 1872 he was appointed professor of organ at the Paris Conservatory, it seemed he might become embroiled in the world of academia. Yet, after helping (the previous year) to set up the Société Nationale de Musique, created specifically to promote outstanding French instrumental and orchestral music, Franck became convinced that this was where his future lay.
Adapting Liszt’s innovative cyclic techniques, whereby musical ideas recur in the same work in a variety of contexts, Franck forged a new creative style which during the 1880s erupted in a series of unequivocal masterworks, including the D minor Symphony, Symphonic Variations for piano and orchestra, Prélude, Choral et Fugue and Prélude, Aria et Final for solo piano, a String Quartet and the A major Violin Sonata.
The sonata was inspired originally by the marriage of fellow-Belgian and celebrated virtuoso violinist, Eugène Ysaÿe to Louise Bordeau. Cast in four movements, it is a work of spectacular contrasts, opening with a sublimely contented Allegretto, before riding out a stormy Allegro and emotionally intense Recitativo (both musical metaphors for life’s slings and arrows), resolving all strife in an exultant finale of heartfelt radiance. It was composed ‘con amore’, according to Ysaÿe, who gave the sonata’s premiere to his assembled wedding guests, despite a lighting failure which meant he was forced to perform most of it in the near-darkness from memory.
© Julian Haylock
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