Christian Ferras (violin)
The SWR Recordings
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)
SWR CLASSIC SWR19114CD [4CDs: 266]
My first encounter with Christian Ferras was on the old Classics for Pleasure LP of the Brahms Double Concerto with Tortelier, conducted by Paul Kletztki and now available on the Testament label. I fell in love with that recording, so jumped at the chance to hear this latest issue.
I started my listening to this compilation with the Brahms concerto, it being a favourite and on the only one of four discs here in stereo. I was struck by the excellence of the sound and the sweetness and precision of Ferras’ playing, confirming his stylistic kinship with another great Gallic violinist, the Belgian Arthur Grumiaux. He is accompanied by a conductor of similar refinement in Herbert Blomstedt, here a youthful forty-four years old. Ferras has a slightly more muscular style than Grumiaux and a quicker, more emphatic vibrato which suits the restless questing of Brahms’ music but also sings vibrantly in the more lyrical sections; Blomstedt matches and abets him with his driven, almost nervy, accompaniment.
Ferras was briefly Karajan’s favourite violinist and scheduled to record twenty concertos with him but only six came to be – which is still a fine legacy. He was never a showman as such but exhibits such poise and control in his playing, and there is no lack of vigour or attack in display passages such as the first movement cadenza. The Adagio is ineffably beautiful – although I can understand adverse reactions to that fast, even “wavery”, vibrato; personally, I like it. The finale is ideally shaped and driven; while listening to it, I forget that I am in “reviewing mode” and am swept along by its élan.
I wish I could say the same of its coupling, Alban Berg’s concerto, in a live recording which, I am reliably informed, is the choice of many an aficionado. It was apparently also a favourite of the soloist and I can certainly hear that he plays it with authority. After that, I am baffled by the music and defer to cognoscenti – although I have a “learned friend” who refers to it as “meandering drivel”…
Moving backwards through the set, I expected to have to be tolerant of less effulgent, mono sound but the expected wrench was far less disconcerting than I had feared, as the ADD remastered transfers from the original SWR tapes are very good - and in fact the change is barely perceptible. The same qualities apparent in the Brahms are very much to the fore here and conductor Hans Müller-Kray is a most sympathetic, sensitive accompanist. Ferras is a more restrained, less aggressive soloist than those in some other famous accounts but there is no lack of torque in his playing and his technique is flawless. He really soars in the central, soulful, lyrical section of the first movement and the Larghetto is similarly exalted. His tone is leaner and purer that some of the “full-fat” exponents such as Perlman or Mutter; the dancing figure which opens the Rondo is like birdsong and he despatches the extraordinarily challenging Kreisler cadenza with ease. The Tchaikovsky concerto is similarly played with such elegance, first in relaxed, insouciant style - but gradually Ferras and Müller-Kray, working in complete harmony, ratchet up the tension and deliver a thrilling account. If Ferras is sometimes thought of as a cool artist, none of that mitigates the passion of his playing of the cadenza – it is a masterclass of virtuosity. Ferras’ adaptive, mercurial capacity is particularly apparent in his playing of the short slow movement; his tone is far richer and darker than, for example, in the last movement of the Beethoven and indeed the excellent booklet notes by Christoph Schlüren refer to his being “a completely different violinist” depending on the repertoire in question. The finale dances and sparkles, suffused with a wild rapture yet so clean of line.
Of course, there are countless alternative versions of the concertos here, so in some ways the sonatas on the first two discs might prove more attractive to punters, especially as they enshrine recordings by one of the great chamber music duos in Ferras and pianist Pierre Barbizet. Again, the sound is so clear and immediate that I find it difficult to believe that it is only mono. The violin is slightly more prominent than the piano but not awkwardly so. The five sonatas here, headed by Beethoven’s two most famous essays in the genre, along with Ravel’s Tzigane, make a highly desirable collection and I cannot imagine them better played. The partnership here is miraculously harmonious; Ferras and Barbizet played from memory and knew each other’s roles; as Barbizet later said, “We breathed together; that was the duo.” The lyrical movements of the sonatas are as beguiling as the pyrotechnic passages.
As noted above, Ferras had a chameleon facility of adapting his style and affect to the composer in hand, a quality most noticeable when we move from the overtly assertive Kreutzer to the dreamy, ethereal little Debussy sonata, to the wild, Romany Ravel display piece, whose recording is notably vivid. I am personally less enamoured of the similarly rhapsodic Enescu sonata but Ferras was a champion of modern, contemporary music and considered himself to be a student of the Romanian composer and the pair’s empathy with this strange, haunting music is not in doubt. Schumann’s powerful, impassioned Violin Sonata No. 2 was premiered by Clara Schumann and Joseph Joachim – who rated it very highly - and it is easy to hear its influence over Brahms. Its performance here is masterly.
Although Ferras’ concertos with Karajan have long held their place in the catalogue and the Warner ICON box set collected many fine recordings, this new issue of the collected SWR recordings will also greatly appeal to his admirers as it presents different, otherwise largely unavailable performances of the highest quality in unexpectedly excellent sound, despite three of the four discs being mono.
CD 1 (mono):
Beethoven: Violin Sonata No. 9 in A Major, Op. 47 “Kreutzer”
Debussy: Violin Sonata in G Minor, L. 140
Ravel: Tzigane, M. 76
rec. 12 November 1953, Untertürkheim, Krone, Stuttgart
CD 2 (mono):
Beethoven: Violin Sonata No. 5 in F Major, Op. 24
Enescu: Violin Sonata No. 3 in A Minor, Op. 25
Schumann: Violin Sonata No. 2 in D minor, Op. 121
rec. 25 September 1959, Schloß, Ettlingen
CD 3 (mono):
Beethoven: Violin Concerto in D major, Op. 61
Tchaikovsky: Violin Concerto in D Major, Op. 35, TH 59
rec. 28 march 1957, Villa Berg, Stuttgart
CD 4 (stereo):
Brahms: Violin Concerto in D major, Op. 77
rec. 10 February 1972, Hans-Rosbaud Studio, Stuttgart
Berg: Violin Concerto “To the Memory of an Angel”
rec. live 17 November 1970, Liederhalle, Stuttgart