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Ferras SWR SWR19114CD
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Christian Ferras (violin)
The SWR Recordings - Concertos & Chamber Music
rec. 1953-1972
SWR CLASSIC SWR19114CD [4 CDs: 266]

Christian Ferras, very much underestimated today, was a great violinist, who represented the very best attributes of the Franco-Belgian School. Born in Le Touquet, France in 1933, he entered the Conservatoire de Nice aged eight and from there progressed to the Paris Conservatoire. George Enesco was a mentor. He went on to forge a formidable career in his early years. He seemed to reach his apogee in the mid-sixties when his refined interpretations and intelligent musicianship attracted the attention of Herbert von Karajan, who invited him to record some of the mainstays of the violin concerto repertoire. Sadly, his life was to end tragically. Battling alcoholism and depression from the mid-sixties onwards, his career suffered as a result. He did, however, accept a professorship at the Paris Conservatoire in 1975, and made a brief comeback to concert-giving in the early part of 1982. Yet, this rehabilitation was to be short-lived. On 14 September 1982, he took his own life at the young age of 49.

On CDs 1 and 2, Ferras is partnered by the French pianist Pierre Barbizet. They initially met in 1949 when the violinist won second prize in the International Marguerite Long-Jacques Thibaud Competition. They formed a distinguished partnership which lasted for many years; it was a match made in heaven. One of their most successful collaborations was the complete sonatas for violin and piano by Beethoven, which they recorded in mono over eight days in November 1958. Two of the composer’s sonatas appear in this collection, the Kreutzer and the Spring. The former dates from 1953, whilst the latter was set down in 1959. As in the studio recording, the Kreutzer is a muscular and full-bloodied account, with the players revealing the rich diversity of the work – its combat, fury, wit and ardent lyricism. The variations are sensitively moulded, and the finale overflows with vim and vigour. The Spring exudes sunny confidence and optimistic anticipation of new life and renewal. The wit and humour in the Scherzo’s off-beats are amply conveyed.

Schumann’s Second Sonata for Violin and Piano was written a few weeks after the first. The composer declared: “I didn’t like the first violin sonata, so I wrote a second, which I hope turned out better”. His wife, Clara, liked it, stating that it was “wonderfully original, with a depth and magnificence that I have hardly ever known before”. It’s very different to its predecessor, shedding brooding melancholy for a more upbeat, exuberant and energetic focus. Ferras and Barbizet made a wonderful “go to” recording of it for DG in the mid 1960s. This SWR recording predates that, being recorded in 1959, but is every bit as fine. There’s plenty of drama in the opening movement, with the more lyrical sections strongly expressive. Pizzicatos ring out warmly in the third movement, a set of variations in G major on a theme reminiscent of the Bach chorale I cry to thee in deepest need. An energetic finale caps off proceedings.

Dans le caractère populaire roumain is the title of Enescu’s third and best known sonata. Ferras and Barbizet deliver an idiomatic and stylized reading. The violinist’s wide-ranging colour palette adds considerably to the allure. Debussy’s Sonata in G minor was the composer’s last major work, written when he was suffering from the cancer that was to end his life. Ferras’ bold and impassioned playing certainly benefits the work, whilst Barbizet, throughout, provides sensitive support. Ravel’s Tzigane is seductive and shot through with exotic gypsy flavour.

CDs 3 and 4 are devoted to concerto performances. The earliest are the Beethoven and Tchaikowsky Concertos taped in 1954 and 1957 respectively. The orchestra is the Radio-Sinfonieorchester Stuttgart des SWR under their long-standing chief conductor Hans Müller-Kray. The two performances have already surfaced on a Meloclassic 2 CD set (MC2042), which I reviewed last year. Meloclassic claim the date of the Tchaikovsky to be 25 March 1957, whereas SWR date it 28 March 1957. I assume they're the same. I’ll just summarize what I wrote in that review of the two performances. In the Beethoven I found Müller-Kray’s conducting pedestrian, staid and uninspiring yet, despite this, Ferras rises to the challenge admirably with a traversal I described as “the perfect fusion of youthful ardour and patrician elegance”. The conductor recovers somewhat in the finale, offering more buoyant and rhythmically-alert support. Müller-Kray doesn’t fare much better in the Tchaikovsky. Again the conducting is routine, but that doesn't deter the soloist from delivering a soul-searching reading. I love the wistful nostalgia Ferras brings to the Canzonetta, and the technical dazzle to the finale.

The performance of the Brahms Concerto dates from 10 February 1972. Here, the SWR Sinfonieorchester Baden-Baden und Freiburg is directed by Herbert Blomstedt. Both Ferras and Blomstedt must take equal credit for a truly stirring performance. Tempi and pacing seem just right, and both conductor and soloist have an instinctive grasp of the architectural structure of the work. The slow movement is lyrically glowing, and the Hungarian finale is charged with passion and fire.

Ferras performed the Berg Violin Concerto ‘To the Memory of an Angel’ many times throughout his career, and made a commercial recording in stereo with the Orchestre de la Société des Concerts du Conservatoire under Georges Prêtre in 1963. In this inscription from November 1970, the violinist is partnered by Michael Gielen directing the Radio-Sinfonieorchester Stuttgart des SWR. A sense of loss and numbing tragedy permeates the performance. Ferras’ colour palette is ideal for a canvas such as this. The second movement is a contemplation of death, resignation and transcendence, into which Berg incorporates Bach’s chorale Es ist genug. It’s an intensely moving performance of introspection and angst.

The violinist’s discography has been immeasurably augmented by these worthy and significant surviving broadcasts from the SWR archive. All the performances are laudably direct on these well-preserved archive documents. Christoph Schlüren’s liner notes in German, and translated into English, set the context admirably. Lovers of the art of great violin playing should look no further, you won’t be disappointed.

Stephen Greenbank

Previous review: Ralph Moore

Beethoven, Ludwig van
Violin Concerto in D major, op.61
Violin Sonata no.5 in F major, op.24 'Spring'
Violin Sonata no.9 in A major, op.47 'Kreutzer'
Berg, Alban
Violin Concerto 'To the Memory of an Angel'
Brahms, Johannes
Violin Concerto in D major, op.77
Debussy, Claude
Violin Sonata in G minor, L148
Enescu, George
Violin Sonata no.3 in A minor, op.25
Ravel, Maurice
Schumann, Robert
Violin Sonata no.2 in D minor, op.121
Tchaikovsky, Pyotr Ilyich
Violin Concerto in D major, op.35

Participating artists:

Pierre Barbizet (piano)
Radio-Sinfonieorchester Stuttgart des SWR/Hans Müller-Kray (Beethoven & Tchaikovsky); Michael Gielen (Berg)
SWR Sinfonieorchester Baden-Baden und Freiburg/Herbert Blomstedt (Brahms)

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