FAURÉ Complete Chamber music for Strings and Piano
This is a smartly packaged box and an enterprising release, bringing together the complete works of Fauré for strings and piano played by a classy roster of artists. Though the discs are arranged by genre, an alternative (and revealing) route is to journey with Fauré through his life, opus by opus, beginning with the First Violin Sonata and the First Piano Quartet. These find Fauré at his most open-hearted and the exuberant playing conveys this well. But immediately you’re aware of a problem: the boomy, unbeautiful sound quality. To what extent this affected my perception of the performances themselves is difficult to tell. In the Violin Sonata No 1, for instance, Renaud Capuçon seems slightly exaggerated in his gestures, far less subtle than Isabelle Faust, whose finely spun lines are a delight in both this (never more so than in the Allegro vivo third movement) and the Second Sonata. In the Piano Quartet No 1, too, there’s more emoting from the Capuçon/Caussé/Dalberto line-up than in Domus’s poised account or the wonderfully warm Beaux Arts reading (the slow movement is a highlight). I can’t help feeling that part of this sensation comes from the recording quality, which is consistent across the two separate sets of sessions; the exception is the String Quartet, recorded by Quatuor Ebène at a different venue in 2008, and a reminder that it boasts one of the finest viola players around today in Mathieu Herzog, in a reading that finds them very much at home in this ravishing piece, leading the listener unerringly through Fauré’s interiorised universe.
One of the other results of this acoustic is that it seems to play up the percussive qualities of the piano (for I would hardly count Angelich or Dalberto aggressive pianists). In the cello sonatas, certainly Devoyon for Isserlis and Stott for Poltéra both exhibit greater restraint in the edgy
first movement of the Cello Sonata No 1. Most convincing on the new set is the finale of this piece, where Gautier Capuçon’s tone can really soar. Received wisdom suggests that Fauré’s music becomes more challenging as you move along the timeline – something attributed to what Roger Nichols so eloquently describes as ‘the many moments of “harmonic drift” so typical of late Fauré’. It’s that sense of a lack of musical signposts that can initially disorientate, which makes the responsibility of the performer all the greater. But actually what is striking about this particular journey through the chamber music is the warmth and easefulness of his final works – a luxuriance of melodic invention – that suffuses the Piano Trio, the slow movement of the Second Cello Sonata, even moments in the String Quartet, albeit of a most inward rapture. The reading of the Trio by the Capuçon brothers with Angelich is one of the best things here: fervent, joyous and weaving an aural coat of many colours in the Andantino.
Along the way there are also the smaller gems: the Berceuse for violin; the cello’s famous Elégie and the Pièce often known as ‘Papillon’ (at his publisher’s insistence and much to the composer’s annoyance: ‘Butterfly or Dung Fly, call it what you like’ was Fauré’s irritated response). These are unfailingly beautifully conveyed.
If you can get over the sound issues, then there’s much fine playing here; how frustrating, then, that this hampers what should have been a benchmark in modern Fauré performance.