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The early years of the 1950s saw the launch of a new music carrier - the Long Playing disk - whose success was by no means certain. For one thing it required the customer to make a considerable investment in new playback equipment. Secondly, the available catalogue was tiny. Third, a format war had broken out between the 33.3 rpm long-playing disk and its rival, the 45 rpm disk with a playing time much closer to that of existing 78rpm shellac disks. (VHS / Betamax; Blu-Ray / HD-DVD; doesn't the industry know exactly how to shoot itself in the foot?)
In such a situation you'd think that record companies would concentrate on releasing potboilers, warhorses, and the good old 'popular classics', in an attempt to seduce the record-buying public to accept the new format and to recoup their investment. And some companies did just that. What is very surprising however is the number of unfamiliar or 'difficult' works that became swiftly, and uniquely, available on LP. Small independent labels were often at the forefront of this. One thinks, for example, of Westminster, Vox, and the Concert Hall Society. It is from this latter company that our recording of the Chausson Concerto for Violin, Piano and String Quartet - a composition hardly in the forefront of the classical music repertoire - originates.
"One of the most unusual works in chamber music", states the LP sleeve note. "This curious work", is how The Record Guide describes it. What are we to make of it?
At first sight we seem to have a piano sextet. However it is clearly titled a "concerto" - and not merely for one but for two soloists! Perhaps we have a double concerto a la Brahms, with a micro-mini-orchestra? Perhaps the two soloists are to have a role, as it were, in opposition to the quartet? Chausson's instrumentation is unique: no other work (I believe) comprises solo piano, solo violin, first violin, second violin, viola, and 'cello. Other composers of sextets typically add weight to the familiar quartet format with, for example, an extra viola and 'cello (Brahms); and the closest work I can find that comes to Chausson's choice is that of the Mendelssohn sextet Op. 110 of 1824: one violin, two violas, 'cello, double bass, piano. But three violins out of six players?
In Chausson's selection lies the unique strengths of this work - and its problems. The Sicilienne is undoubtedly lovely. But at full blast in the outer movements the high strings can shriekily dominate the sound and there Chausson is forced to use the piano, not as a virtuoso soloist, but instead relegated to playing left-hand octaves along with the 'cello, trying to provide some counterbalancing bass depth. One wonders what the pianist thinks of his 'soloist' role here?
Chausson is often referred to as a composer who bridges Franck and Debussy and though he was student of the one, and mentor to the other, in this work he mostly harks back to the more stolid earlier Franckian structures as evidenced by the three chords that open - and form the base for - the first movement. Yet there is certainly much originality in the piece and one wonders what he might have gone on to write had his short compositional career not been ended so early (by a bicycle accident).
For this transfer and restoration we used disks both from the original US Concert Hall Society issue and from the UK Nixa issue. The Concert Hall disk interestingly labels itself as "continuous recording". This claim becomes doubtful when one encounters a couple of dreadful and very evident tape edits (corrected here by us). Then one realizes that they probably meant "continuous playback" since in 1951 most people were still used to their listening being interrupted every four minutes by side changes, and to have over twenty continuous minutes of music was a novelty. There is a moment of distortion (much minimized in the restoration but not, I fear, inaudible) which occurs on both pressings and we conclude that it's probably on the original master.
Well, it's a curious work, indeed. We hope that you will be curious enough to try it!
CHAUSSON Concerto for Violin, Piano & String Quartet, Op. 21
Louis Kaufman, violin
Artur Balsam, piano
The Pascal Quartet
Jacques Dumont (violin I)
Maurice Crut (violin II)
Leon Pascal (viola)
Robert Salles (cello)
Recorded June-November 1950, Paris
Issued as Concert Hall CHS-1071
Bill Rosen's Review
It is a tribute to the performance to say that when the final note comes, we are not exhausted; we are inspired
Ernest Chausson, though very talented, comfortable financially and highly esteemed by musicians such as Cesar Franck and Claude Debussy, was a melancholy and introverted man. He was a gifted painter and also took a law degree. In spite of all this, he was unsure of the quality of his music and composed slowly and painfully. All of his works are deeply sensual and have a kind of French Wagnerian quality, although Chausson had a love-hate relationship with Wagner.
The Concert for Violin, Piano and String Quartet, very likely Chausson's finest work, is difficult to classify. It is not a concerto for violin or piano or both, although these instruments carry the themes and there is considerable virtuosity required from both. It is certainly not a sextet because the quartet acts too much the in role of accompaniment. Let us say the form is perfect for the work's content. The long and powerful first movement begins with three loud chords, which are the motif of the composition and repeated in the last movement. There is an extended introduction and then the violin gives out the beautiful first theme unrolling over endless piano arpeggios. The second movement is a short intermezzo with an archaic flavor. The heart and soul of the Concert lies in the slow movement where the piano begins with a sorrow-laden series of notes and the mood ultimately moves from tragedy to acceptance. The final movement is vigorous and subjects the main theme to numerous variations until the motto theme from the Concert's start comes in with power to conclude the work .
There are many fine recordings of this work, but I can recall none which have affected me as deeply as this one. The sweet, golden, commanding tone of Louis Kaufman sets the pace. The discipline and iron French elegance of the Pascal String Quartet hold the work in place and do not permit rhetoric to intrude on beauty and passion, as is sometimes the case in this work. Artur Balsam is not quite in the same class, but his steadiness and ability to integrate his piano sound are vital. It is a tribute to the performance to say that when the final note comes, we are not exhausted; we are inspired.
It remains only to say that the sound created by Peter Harrison is superb mono: clear, detailed, rich and appropriately sensuous.