Gabriel Pierné: Violin Sonata
Out of interest in the music and to see what would happen, I compared a number of recordings of Pierné's violin sontata.
I am uncomfortable criticising musicians who play at a level I can only dream of achieving, but this excersise has been interesting, for me anyway. I've been a piano maniac most of my life, so I have an alert ear for the piano, however in the case of the violin I've been less able to form an immediate opinion, since before this I had never directly compared the playing of solo violinists. The upshot is, this sonata can be exhausting or completely absorbing, depending on how it's played.
One of my impressions concerns dynamic scale: the instrument can only go so loud. Past a certain point you can't get much louder, and run the risk of becoming strident or distorted. A good musician handles the listener's expectations by creating the illusion of loudness not only with actual volume but also through rhythm and phrasing. A quiet but clearly-played note can have more presence in the mind of a listener than a louder one going by in a blur. It's like the problem that many metal bands have (though they don't seem to realize it): everything is loud, so it's basically just loud muzak. The same note on a violin can sound many different ways depending on how its played, but if you're digging in all the time your options are more limited. In the recommended performances below, both the violin and the piano default to a dynamic middle ground, allowing softs to be lovely and louds to be different, and allowing variation in tonal color. In some of the other recordings you'll not hear those things — but you need to have been there to know what you're missing. And what you do hear is often fatiguing: the violin sound always pushed instead of floating; a black-and-white picture instead of a full-color one.
Of course the venue comes into it: in a large concert hall, musicians have to "project". This usually means to play louder, but phrasing also changes. To people sitting far away in the audience it might sound fantastic, as it's backed up by the hall's accoustic, while that same playing might sound brash and exposed in a recording studio, or even in the same hall with microphones placed close up. It seems to me that the studio setting is especially unforgiving to string instruments. It's on the musicians to adjust their playing for the venue, but I also wonder how some of versions listed below would sound if recorded differently.
The classical music world has a lot of history thus loads of dogma, so sometimes the freshest interpretations come from simply looking at the source — at the score, and at what the composer was up to at the time — instead of just assuming based on the composer's reputation or place in history. Case in point: Bruckner's fourth symphony. Based on his later work, especially his ninth, people have tended to treat all of his music as the product of some sort of mystic, but then the conductor Manfred Honeck looked at what Bruckner himself said about his fourth and found that it was more like a gothic romance story, complete with knights in shining armor etc. When you hear Honeck's recording, it's the same notes but feels so different (like... it's supposed to be fun?). And I remember a piano teacher once telling me with absolute certainty that the emphasis always comes on the first note in a bar, because everybody knows that, even though the piece I was playing was by Chabrier and had the accents specifically notated elsewhere. And there are so many examples of entertaining music being smothered in reverence. These things came to mind as I compared. I wondered if in some cases the goal was to be "passionate", or if "passionate" was the violinist's default setting, whether or not it made sense in the moment of the score. This approach wears out fast, and tramples so many details that would otherwise be absorbing. Plus it doesn't actually match the detailed and colorful piano part of this sonata (which is just nuts technically by the way, starting out in 10/16 time with two groups of five per bar and rarely letting up). In the two recordings I recommend, the violin and piano seem a part of the same story instead of vying for the same air, and give a sense of visual depth or landscape.
Jacques Israelievitch, violin & Kanae Matsumoto, piano ("French Violin Sonatas") The violin playing of Jacques Israelievitch is unfailingly sweet and in tune, even when pressed into fast corners or flying high. It comes off as a softer sound at first, but the ear adjusts (and never fatigues), while the lower registers sound gorgeously viola-like. The pianist also great, phrasing with great perception, and also noticeably different than the Milstein performance below: playing with more pedal but not drowning in it, adding tonal color and differentiation between lines. Care is taken in terms of structure; for example in the finale they slow down going into the colorful interludes then build again, instead of just rushing through it all (making the final rush all the more thrilling). Altogether this is a fantastic performance. I wish it were better recorded; it sounds fine overall, but the piano image in particular is a bit blurry or boxy — though it's not a dealbreaker.
Maria Milstein, violin & Nathalia Milstein, piano ("Vinteuil Sonata") Hearing this got me started comparing. See my review. Listening to it again after all the others listed here, I still found it wonderful. It's more clearly-recorded than the Israelievitch / Matsumoto version, but different also in terms of a more husky or woody (but not heavy) violin tone and a drier approach to the piano part, which together make for an impression I originally described with the words "ardent nervousness" and "energy" and "skitting along a tightrope". It's as if this is a younger, less-burnished version.
Philippe Koch, violin & Christian Ivaldi, piano (Complete Chamber Music Vol. 1) This is the first recording of this sonata I heard. Going back to it now I find it's pretty good, but, well, overemphasized. Take the first movement, which at one point slows down to soporific. Or the slow movement, where the piano plays too obviously and the violin not soft enough. In faster sections, the piano part goes by in a blur. The violin sounds nice, but tends toward a large sound even when it needs to be delicate.
Elsa Grether, violin & François Dumont, piano ("French Resonance") This is pretty good, but again I find it overemphasized. The reflective accoustic might be part of the problem, making the piano in particular sound jangly when louder. But the gestures do tend to be big. Take the entrance to the slow movement, which is too loud, gilding the lily and making the tune seem sappy. The finale seems a bit slapdash, and the violin pushes toward screechy.
Solène Païdassi, violin & Laurent Wagschal, piano ("The Art Of The Violin") Laurent Wagschal has recorded a lot of French piano music, and well, so I had high hopes for this. But here his approach to the piano part is quite wet. Perhaps it's an intentionally impressionist effect, but I ended up feeling that all the interesting textures and snappy, subtle figurations are blurred. As for the violin, it's often simply too loud, like an opera singer wailing her part, sometimes to the point of stridency. And the recording is unclear, especially in the case of the piano.
Gaëtane Prouvost, violin & Laurent Cabasso, piano (Works for Violin and Piano) This is rather big-boned playing, emphasizing stormy passion, and though the pianist plays well the violin suffers from sounding basically the same all the time, just softer or louder (and sometimes screechy, especially at the end).
Christophe Giovaninetti, violin & Izumiko Aoyagi, piano ("Minstrels") This one has problems. The piano part comes off clunky, and crucial virtuosic parts are muffed, as are rhythmic details. The violin is better, and often sounds nice, but becomes strident when pushed. The first movement seems misshapen. The slow movement is nicer, though a bit obvious. The last movement is awkward, crashing around and getting super slow in the middle.