This is the debut recording from French violinist Brieuc Vourch, in two big, Romantic violin sonatas. And while Vourch deservedly gets top billing, pianist Guillaume Vincent impresses mightily as well. What a magnificent team they make. But I'm getting ahead of myself - as usual.
From the very first notes, I was struck by the stunning clarity of the recorded sound. This recording appears on the FARAO Classics label, which I have only encountered once before - on an equally splendid CD of wind concertos by Henri Tomasi. And let's be clear right upfront, this is one spectacular-sounding recording. The listener is transported to the hall in which the recording was made, with the players literally placed right in front of you - the piano slightly farther away than the violin. The realism and presence are remarkable. I was reminded of the superb recorded sound coming from another small independent label I've been enjoying lately: Azica.
Besides the clarity, the next things which struck me were the balance between piano and violin, in an utterly natural acoustic, and the piano itself. The piano does not dominate, yet sounds realistically full-sized. The recording accurately captures the enormity of its wooden body. But not just that. The clarity reveals not only the attack of the percussive transient, but the sustained resonance which follows each note - from the strings and the wooden body itself. I go into this much detail because the full concert grand piano is one of the most difficult to record and reproduce on a home stereo system. The FARAO engineers certainly get it right. The booklet does not tell us what piano this is, but it sounds rather unlike a Steinway; a little less brilliant, more wooden and warm. Perhaps a Fazioli? Or just a magnificent Steinway as recorded by an extremely capable and attentive recording engineer.
Then there is Vourch's sweetly singing violin. Ah, his glorious tone - which certainly contributes to making this recording so special. He plays a 1690 Ruggeri, and this doesn't sound like your typical Strad. There is a purring texture to it - the sound of the bow across the string which accompanies the sweetness of tone in a way rarely heard on record. And then, in forte passages, Vourch digs in with heavy bow and unearths an amazing, wonderfully rugged, rich, hearty tone. His variety of tonal colors and overall sound are really something to behold.
All of these observations - and I've only gotten through the first movement of the Strauss!
In addition to the tonal characteristics described above, the dynamic range is amazing - keeping in mind the piano never overwhelms the violin. It is ever so slightly recessed, allowing Vourch's radiant tone to shine. Just listen to his ravishing pianissimos.
As to the music-making, I hardly need to mention how wonderful these performances are. But I must. The Strauss impresses with its subtle inflections, musical phrasing, wide dynamic range and variety of tonal colors - not just from the violin, but the piano as well. But most of all, I think it's the natural outpouring of musical expression, without ever over-emoting, which brings this music fully to life. There is a sweeping direction to the music; tempos have a natural ebb-and-flow, without ever sagging or losing concentration; and there is not a moment of heaviness to this richly Romantic music. This is surely the most successful account of the piece I've yet heard.
The same can be said of the Franck. The opening movement isn't at all fussy; the usual hesitations - interruptions in the momentum - are non-existent. Instead, it's a natural expression without an unnecessary need to "say" something. The music unfolds on its own. The second movement is played at a true Allegro, but the piano is less bold in the opening than is often heard - partly due to the recorded balance, but also the marvelous leggiero touch Vincent utilizes so brilliantly. Vourch's entry, though, sounds a bit closer and louder than previously heard. I suspect he leaned into the mic a bit to produce a true fortissimo here. It wasn't necessary; his rugged, intense G-string tone speaks for itself without any help whatsoever. But never mind this minor observation, a few bars later everything returns to normal and Vourch's vibrant tone continues to inspire. This is a moving, rather than extrovertly exciting, rendition of the movement, which continues naturally into the Recitativo-Fantasia which follows. Remarkably, the Allegro movement isn't as disjointed from the rest as is sometimes the case. The passionate singing quality connects each movement into a unified whole, and structurally, it simply makes sense.
The Finale then returns us to the gentle, lovely singing lines heard in the opening of the Strauss. Taken at a quicker tempo than I can ever remember, it becomes almost pastorale rather than overwhelmingly passionate. And it works splendidly! The players obviously observe the poco mosso ("a little more") part of the tempo indication, allowing the lightness of tone to reflect the Allegretto marking. But later on, Vourch pours on the passion when musically appropriate, intensifying his vibrato, displaying again a brilliant dynamic range and variety of tone color. The faster tempo pays enormous dividends and the piece ends with dazzling bravura.
Vourch was born in France and currently lives in Hamburg, Germany. He studied with Perlman at Juilliard early in his training and there are many hints of it in his playing. There is that unmistakable singing quality - without overdoing the emotion - which is a hallmark of Perlman's playing. Vourch scores though with that extra bit of rich texture and vibrancy along with the sweetness of tone - surely a characteristic of his magnificent instrument.
And I cannot stress enough the sensitivity, musicality, and naturalness of Vincent's piano playing. He is an equal, indeed perfect, partner in every sense.
In closing, these are not my most favorite violin sonatas and I was not overly enthusiastic to hear this CD. However, after listening to this wonderful recording, I have newfound appreciation for both works. And I am very enthusiastic to hear more from this team. The playing and the recorded sound are simply magnificent. I can't offer more praise than that.