César Franck’s Cello Sonata

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After the Paris Commune came to an end in 1871 and right up to the First World War, Paris enjoyed a period of frenzied reconstruction and renewal. Paris’s renaissance is referred to today as la Belle Epoque (The Beautiful Era). Most memorable were the universal exhibitions that took place during this period of great optimism, which attracted visitors from the world over. Money flowed into the capital and the arts benefited hugely. A new opera was built and chamber music filled the private salons and small musical venues all over town. With the Société Nationale de Musique keen to promote French Chamber music, composers such as César Franck and Benjamin Godard flourished.

Cellist, Corinne Morris, has just brought out a new recording in honour of Franck and Godard.

Franck’s renowned Cello and Piano Sonata in A major is a must in the romantic repertoire. It is one of my personal favourites and one that I have heard played often. My pianist grandmother performed it often at the private concerts she held in Paris. Like most non-professional pianists, she limited herself to playing the slower but still challenging third movement (there are four).

Memories of the music floating out of my grandmother’s Art Nouveau apartment came flooding back when I listened to Corinne Morris’s Belle Epoque 1886. On this recording, Morris and pianist, Petr Limonov, show themselves to be a winning duo as they brilliantly navigate the shifts and surprising turns the music takes.

The slow, rocking rhythm of the opening movement brings to mind a night sky where the stars are beginning to appear, one by one. The sensation of new beginnings changes to one of exploration. The cello circles and meanders, then drifts off in new directions.

We are plunged into the fast movement, scooped up and lifted up on a giant wave which collapses, only to rise again, this time in a higher register. Both piano and cello repeat this pattern at different times.

The turbulence ceases, making way for the slower third movement. Piano chords requiring outstretched hands, begin their ponderous rise up the keyboard before the cello takes over with its lyrical leaps and fancies. There follows a surprising piano moment of incredible modernity. The soundscape brings to mind rippling shallow waters stretching out to infinity.

The Sonata in A was originally written for violin (it was a wedding present for a known violinist) but the cello adaptation by renowned cellist, Jules Delsart (pictured below), was blessed by Franck himself. 

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In the cello-piano version there seems to me to be true dialogue and understanding – the piano and cello being closer in tone.

Benjamin Godard’s Sonata for Cello and Piano in D minor which follows sounded distinctly Germanic. Romantic and expressive, playful in parts with a driving force in the third movement, I thought I was listening to Schumann! 

Germanic influences or not, Morris’s honeyed cello and Limonov’s intelligent play, make this a delectable album for lovers of French chamber music and of Franck in particular. 

KH

Belle Epoque 1886 comes out on Somm Recordings 22nd January 2021 https://somm-recordings.com/recording/belle-epoque-1886/

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