FAURÉ Cello Sonatas Nos 1 & 2
Received ideas about Fauré’s two cello sonatas would have us regard them as characteristic of his old age when his manner tended to sobriety – asceticism even – compared to the ease and generosity we associate with him earlier. A frequent comment about his late music in general has been that it’s more difficult to warm to: the writing leaner and sparer than before, the statements often elliptical or unpredictable; offerings, in sum, of a final period when an admired and once most likeable composer, now very deaf, had retreated into an interior world not caring very much whether anyone followed him.
Ideas about music, rather than the music itself! Come to these sonatas from the late Nocturnes and Barcarolles for piano, on the other hand, the series of great pieces running through Fauré’s life, and find on the contrary there’s no bleakness and no difficulty at all in catching that voice – still talking to us, if from a little farther off. Certainly the notes are made to work harder and Fauré is less inclined to give us elegance and an attractive surface. But there is no falling-off of quality. The language has undergone a renewal, and any difficulty we have with it is possibly due to its relative unfamiliarity, the innovations of Debussy and Ravel having become less striking to us, for example, while Fauré’s vocabulary, with its rather unrevolutionary appearance, continues sometimes to disconcert.
These two new recordings have admirable qualities, the Hyperion especially. Both of them place the sonatas in the context of Fauré’s other music for cello, which is another good approach. You notice that the piano parts of his smaller pieces, though simpler, contribute subtleties of movement and character to the whole just as they do in the songs. Five of these individual pieces figure on each recording, but not the same five, Alban Gerhardt and Cecile Licad on Hyperion offering the Sicilienne, a number recycled in 1898 from incidental music intended for Molière’s Le bourgeois gentilhomme, whereas the French duo have instead the Berceuse of 1880. That was the year of Fauré’s Elégie, which retains the power to stop every listener in their tracks and which every cellist plays. Characteristic and high-class Fauré, all of this, that reveals much about the player. Listening to these two has been a pleasure and it would be unfair to play one off against the other. Gerhardt, the more outgoing personality, has the command of a very fine virtuoso; but François Salque too projects a range of sound and character that makes one listen. He has as well a ‘speaking’ quality to his tone, from time to time, more intimate in manner, that I particularly like.
His partnership with Eric Le Sage is best in the First Sonata, where there’s little to choose between the teams in the edgy first movement, and the Frenchmen shape the middle movement well. But already doubts creep in about the pianist’s insistent right hand, and each time I’ve returned to Salque/Le Sage, reservations about balance detail have increased. These are attributable more often to the recording, I’ve no doubt, and they come and go, but they are faults which should have been addressed and are responsible for an impression of a duo that only fitfully achieves distinction and doesn’t always sustain a focused discourse, or indeed to be really listening to itself. Gerhardt and Licad on the other hand sound free as air, intellectually confident, full of verve, with niceties of balance and intensities never an issue; a convincing frame of colour, movement and sound in place for every movement, every piece.
In the sonatas their partnership makes you sense how Fauré’s art became if anything more vigorous as it progressed, and how he loved playing on the richness of polyphonic composition. Sonata No 1’s finale has been the subject of dispute on account of its slow metronome marking, which may not be Fauré’s. Hyperion offer the movement twice, a quicker version of it on a separate track at the end of the disc. As a sonata-finale it is certainly an unusual inspiration, beginning as if we were already in the middle of something and invited to eavesdrop. In exploring No 1 I’ve found it intriguing and prefer it at the more leisurely tempo.
Alpha’s disc is programmed as if to invite the listener to take it as a recital, on the trot. It ends with a version of the Piano Trio with clarinet replacing the customary violin; for me, another novelty. Fauré apparently had clarinet (‘or violin’) in mind when he began the composition but the performance is evidence he must have abandoned further thought of the instrument quite early on – the clarinet is simply not a viable alternative. Alpha announces the issue as Vol 1 of Fauré’s complete chamber music, with Eric Le Sage at the hub of it and patronage acknowledged from the Venice-based Centre de musique romantique française. The booklet speaks of poetry as well as music and has lots of pictures; diffuseness reigns. Of these two CDs, the Hyperion, with readable and authoritative notes by Roger Nichols, is obviously the one to get. May it win friends for some excellent and still undervalued music. As d’Indy wrote to Fauré when the Second Sonata was new, ‘how lucky you are to stay young like that’.