Hailed as a “hero” (Los Angeles Times), a “smashing” performer (Washington Post), “a pianist who breaks the mold” (International Piano) and “who stands out from the typical trends and artifices offered [...]
They spoke about it
Sonatas for violin and piano by César Franck and Guillaume Lekeu: two summits of the chamber music repertoire, championed here by two brothers, David Lefèvre et Alain Lefèvre who meet at last in the intimate setting of the recording studio—two people closely connected by their equally unquenchable thirst for music. An ideal post-script to the program, the Ballade-Fantaisie by André Mathieu is performed here in world premiere recording.
César Franck: Sonata in A major for Violin and Piano
Franck’s music is the denial of the static. Rhythmically, it is like blood flowing through the veins; in other words, like life itself, subject to the heart’s very pulsations.
?Maurice Kunel, César Franck, l’homme et son œuvre.
César Franck wrote the Sonata for violin and piano in 1886, at the age of 64 and at the peak of his creativity, as a wedding gift for the violinist Eugène Ysaÿe. The pianist Alfred Cortot recounts: “I learned, from Ysaÿe himself, with what anxious haste, what wonder-filled eagerness he read the manuscript, whose ink was barely dry… It is moving to imagine the young artist switching frantically from violin to piano, probing with passionate attention the secrets of these pages, whose sublime emanations seemed to furnish with miraculous and quasi-prophetic life a home almost empty of furniture but already filled with the expectation of glory.” As the work’s dedicatee, Ysaÿe premiered it on December 16 of the same year in Brussels.
The sweet, dreamlike first movement, “Allegro ben moderato,” demands a sense of poetry and mystery. The piano’s tender introduction receives a warm response in the violin. Initially a simple, barely-fleshed-out line, light as air, the melody gains increasing density as it is repeated, morphing into a lush, poignant song. The particularly expressive second theme is taken by the piano alone, its romantic ardor supported by a flurry of left-hand arpeggios, before the violin returns to the first theme with sobriety and subtlety.
In the tumultuous and deeply rhapsodic “Allegro” that follows, the piano opens the dance once again, the violin scudding on the turbulent currents of this ocean of sound, weathering the piano’s waves of broken chords. The tempest eventually dies down for a time before the raging first theme surges forth again, though less dramatically, dissolving anew into a false calm, charged with expectation, before emptying at last into the maelstrom.
The slow movement is fraught with heart-rending beauty and an almost improvisational character. A fragile thread stretched between dream and reality, a dialogue between two betrothed lovers, a moment of respite coloured with an increasingly present nostalgia, “heaven and earth according to César Franck,” says Alain Lefèvre, this movement is a showcase for the violin. Punctuated with feverish trills, delicately sketched arabesques and unfinished phrases, the violin line is supported by a full, free-flowing piano part.
The final movement is an exultation of confidence in life, as expressed through the initial statement of the luminous opening theme, but tinged with contained fervor. Franck then presents the theme in a fugue-like gesture, repeated four times, with the piano once again playing the role of guide and the violin taking up the same melody shortly afterward. Between these passages, the initial motif is reprised ever more insistently, the violin rising with increasing urgency over the spirited piano part.
Guillaume Lekeu: Sonata in G major for Violin and Piano
Even if it kills me, I put my very soul into my music.
Before succumbing to typhoid fever in 1894, at the age of 24, Guillaume Lekeu was considered one of Belgian music’s bright young stars. Largely self-taught as a composer, he initially immersed himself in the scores of Beethoven and Wagner. (The late quartets of the former were constantly in his possession, and he actually fainted after hearing the latter’s Prelude to Tristan und Isolde in Bayreuth.) In 1888, he moved to Paris to study with César Franck, becoming both disciple and friend. The renowned Belgian musicologist José Quitin noted, however, that he was “a composer whose modern harmonic ideas and vehement musical language probably would have led him beyond the limits of “Franckist” doctrine to evolve more along the lines of Claude Debussy.”
César Franck would die two years later, plunging Guillaume Lekeu into deep sorrow. In 1891, he composed the moving Adagio pour quatuor d’orchestre, a piano sonata and a cantata entitled Andromède, an excerpt of which he conducted on February 18, 1892 for a meeting of Les XX in Brussels. After the concert, Ysaÿe commissioned from him what would become his most famous work, the Sonata for Violin and Piano, which he completed that September. A melancholic and passionate work, it traveled the world thanks to Ysaÿe and would be performed by the 20th century’s great violinists. David Lefèvre has this to say about the work: “This sonata is without question a pure masterpiece, and I consider it to be an essential part of the chamber music repertoire. Yet, unbelievably, it is unknown even to many violinists, who look at you with a puzzled expression when you say Guillaume Lekeu. Alain and I have no desire to defend this music; it doesn’t need us for that! We have simply tried to play it from our hearts. Listeners sensitive to artistic sincerity cannot but be profoundly moved by the lyric spirit, sumptuous phrasing and passionate flights of expression in this score, written by a young man of only 22 years.”
The sonata opens with a slow introduction into which the composer slips the movement’s themes. While its chromaticism reflects the influence of César Franck and Richard Wagner, Lekeu develops the movement in a deeply rich and personal style, characterized by an abundance of melodic ideas, a certain harmonic audacity and an uncommon freedom of expression.
The second movement, “Très lent,” is almost unbearably intense, plunging the listener into a surreal world where whiffs of popular song intermingle with extreme lyricism and sorrowful introspection. The ambiguity of the movement’s 7/8 time infuses this sublime movement with an almost chance-like character.
Conceived of as a single flurry from beginning to end, the last movement takes up the main themes of the first two movements in a torrent of contrapuntal, chromatic and particularly acrobatic writing.
André Mathieu: Ballade-Fantaisie for Violin and Piano
André Mathieu did not discover music: it was inside of him.
?Léo-Pol Morin, 1939
André Mathieu (1929–1968) revealed an exceptional talent for the piano and composition from a very young age, composing evocative pieces as early as four years old and eliciting an abundance of superlatives. He made his New York debut on February 3, 1940 to great acclaim and two years later won first prize in the young composers competition organized by the New York Philharmonic for its centenary celebrations, beating, notably, a young Leonard Bernstein. When, that same year, he wrote his Ballade-Fantaisie pour violon et piano, he was therefore at the height of his all-too-brief glory.
© Lucie Renaud
Translation: Peter Christensen