United Kingdom Lekeu, Debussy, Chausson: Alina Ibragimova (violin), Cédric Tiberghien (piano), Doric String Quartet (Alex Redington & Ying Xue [violins], Hélène Clément [viola], John Myerscough [cello]). Wigmore Hall, London, 30.3.2022. (CS)
Lekeu – Violin Sonata in G
Debussy – String Quartet in G minor, Op.10
Chausson – Concert in D major for violin, piano and string quartet, Op.21
I’m going to write this review in reverse, so to speak. The work in this Wigmore Hall programme of French music, written at the start of the 1890s, that had most attracted my attention when browsing through the Hall’s spring schedule was Ernest Chausson’s Concert in D for violin, piano and string quartet – not least because it promised to bring together the formidable forces of Alina Ibragimova, Cédric Tiberghien and the Doric String Quartet. And, it didn’t disappoint. But, before we reached this glorious conclusion to the concert, there were intriguing interpretations of the familiar and exciting illuminations of the unknown.
Oddly, given this was an all-French programme, it was the ghost of Richard Wagner that loomed large throughout. Or, perhaps not so oddly, given that after the premiere of Tannhaüser in Paris in 1861 – despite, or perhaps because of, the sixteen-year wait for another Parisian performance of a Wagnerian music drama – Bayreuth became a pilgrimage destination for French composers, painters and poets. Wagner exerted an enormous emotive and visceral influence: Maurice Ravel and Ernest Chabrier are said to have wept during a performance of the prelude to Tristan und Isolde, while Guillaume Lekeu fainted when he heard the prelude at Bayreuth; Vincent d’Indy was similarly afflicted by the death of Siegfied in Götterdamerung. This concert programme showed how the French ‘Gallicised’ the Teutonic Wagner and found their own voices.
There were other ‘connecting threads’ in the programme, too, not least the figures of César Franck and Eugene Ysaÿe. In the genre-defying ‘Concert’ – the title surely leans backward to its historical roots in the concerted music of the French Baroque – Chausson borrowed the cyclic form of the composer whose circle he joined at the Paris Conservatoire in September 1879, after he’d abandoned his earlier law studies and travelled to Munich the previous month to hear Wagner conduct The Flying Dutchman and The Ring. Chausson’s Concert for violin, piano and string quartet was premiered in Brussels on 26th February 1892 with the solo violin part taken by Ysaÿe, who was joined by the quartet of his pupil, Mathieu Crickboom, and a young Parisian pianist, Auguste Pierret. After the performance Chausson wrote in his diary, ‘I must believe that my music is made for Belgians above all, for never have I enjoyed such a success … I feel giddy and joyful, such as I have not managed to feel for a long time … It seems to me that I shall work with greater confidence in future’.
The energy that one detects in these remarks is reflected in the music, which never settles or rests. One of the most notable things about this performance was the way that the performers balanced radiance with restraint, searing sonority with subtlety. There was something Beethovian – ‘Es muß sein’ – about the way the germ motif announced itself and bedded in. And, while the solo violin has authoritative passages, there was an equality within the dialogues which was refreshing. Notable, too, was the lightness of touch exhibited by Tiberghien, no matter how elaborate and extravagant the fistfuls of notes. The final movement, Très animé, was a bit of a hothouse – how can such intensity not burn itself out? – but there was some wonderful control of the musical tension in the Grave, and the second movement Sicilienne was a musical palimpsest: one could detect the outlines of the original Baroque dance beneath the flowing ease.
In the early 1890s, the moneyed Chausson was a generous benefactor to one Claude Debussy, so it seemed fitting to hear the latter’s G minor String Quartet at the centre of the programme. What was striking here was the incisiveness of the attack at the start of the Animé et très décidé and the expansive range of timbres that followed, often emphasising extremes, and always creating a feeling of reinvention and renewal. The Assez vif et bien rhythmé was more spiky than pert – this was lean Debussy – but the Doric garnered energy from the timbre and there was light and air, whether explosive forte or pitter-patter piano. A lovely ‘distanced’ quality characterised the lyrical musings of the Andantino, doucement expressif; there was a real ‘stillness’ and repose here, but no lack of reflectiveness. The cello’s ppp ending made me think of a spider’s web quivering in a breeze. And, the fervour was rich but always contained in the Très modéré, the counterpoint lithe, the drive unceasingly.
‘This time he had distinguished, quite clearly, a phrase which emerged for a few moments from the waves of sound. It had at once held out to him an invitation to partake of intimate pleasures, of whose existence, before hearing it, he had never dreamed, into which he felt that nothing but this phrase could initiate him; and he had been filled with love for it, as with a new and strange desire.’ Much literary and musicological probing and speculation has sought to identify the source of the fictional Vinteuil’s ‘little phrase’, that so obsesses the protagonist of Marcel Proust’s Swann’s Way: the violin sonatas of César Franck and Camille Saint-Saëns are frequently proposed as the models for Vinteuil’s cyclic form, but perhaps it was the 1892 Violin Sonata (commissioned by Ysaÿe) of Guillaume Lekeu, largely self-taught, but a pupil of Franck, that was the origin of Swann’s memory-triggering motif?
My first question to myself, as Ibragimova and Tiberghien moved from the first movement’s introductory Très modéré – youthful, fresh, like a dawn awakening – to the Vif et passioné, driven by the impetuousness of Tiberghien’s arpeggio waves, was, ‘Why don’t I know this sonata – and, how has it slipped through the French nineteenth-century repertoire cracks?’ Ibragimova’s tone was wonderfully centred, true and clean but not overly honeyed, moving easily from serenity to vehemence. There was such exciting freedom here: in Lekeu’s restless harmonic explorations and discursive motivic meandering, and in the players’ integration of lyricism and tumult. The visceral expressive idiom was manifest in the strength of Ibragimova’s E-string melodism: as relaxation and strength cohered, I was put in mind of an athlete, muscles loose but powerful, surging forwards. The long phrases were both fluent and declamatory; Ibragimova’s bowing action – incisive, smooth, flowing – should be compulsory viewing for all young (or not so young) wannabe violinists. Both musicians mastered the ebb and flow, taming it into coherent shapes; and, though the Très modéré returned at the close, the piano’s closing, subdued ppp chords retained a frisson of passion.
The concluding Très animé movement announced itself with vigour, but there were moments of light and air within the general torrent and bombast was kept at bay. It was the central Très lent that most mesmerised me, though. While the idiom was very different, there was almost a Brahmsian focus, and the controlled intensity of the melancholy 7/8 wanderings was gripping – the way Ibragimova raises her right elbow to give her sound weight without heaviness is truly wonderful. And, there was tranquillity – sometimes an almost Satie-esque insouciance. Lekeu’s sonata may attest to its models, but at its core it is truly original. The composer died of typhoid fever in 1894, at the age of 24, another – alongside Purcell, Mozart, Schubert, Schumann, Mendelssohn, Chopin, Bizet, Gershwin, Lili Boulanger, and indeed Chausson, who rode his bicycle into a stone wall and died of his injuries at the age of 44 – of those composers who make us wonder ‘what might have been’ …
This was one of those evenings when the calibre of the individual performances and the joyfulness of the ensemble music-making created a wonderful synergy between musicians and listeners, and made the music itself the star of the show. An absolutely terrific concert.