« Bednarz and Hiratsuka are well on their way to establishing themselves as a formidable violin and piano duo. Highly recommended ».

Jerry Dubins, Fanfare

Here is an interesting program which avoids the routine by pairing the over-familiar Franck Violin Sonata with the very much less often heard sonata by Guillaume Lekeu and the almost never heard Nocturne by Lili Boulanger. At least once told—perhaps twice—is the story of my first encounter with Lekeu’s sonata on a mid-1950s RCA LP, performed by Yehudi Menuhin and Marcel Gazelle. The piece struck me as a “wanderer’s fantasy” if ever there was one, as I kept an impatient eye on the turntable arm slowly making its way across the grooves and wondering, not when, but if it would ever end. Lekeu may have lived to be only 24 (1870–1894) and to have composed fewer than 30 works during his short lifespan, but not a few of them, including the Violin Sonata, lack nothing for length or ambition. I’ve since, of course, come to terms with Lekeu’s discursive style, which is characterized by a “restless chromaticism,” punctuated by the periodic upwelling of molten passion; and of late, his Violin Sonata seems to have emerged as his most representative work, with relatively recent recordings by Tasmin Little and Alina Ibragimova, to name just two. Lekeu was a student of César Franck, so Franck’s deservedly popular Violin Sonata—possibly his finest work—is a natural discmate for the Lekeu, but the Nocturne by Lili Boulanger adds an unusual touch to this program. Longer-lived than Lekeu by only one year, Lili Boulanger (1893–1918), who died at 25 of an intestinal disorder, was the younger and less famous sister of Nadia Boulanger, one of the most influential music educators and academicians of the 20th century. Sister Lili studied organ with Louis Vierne and may actually have inherited a more native talent for composition than did Nadia, but like Lekeu, she managed to leave fewer than three dozen works, most of which are short pieces for voice and piano or chorus and piano.

Boulanger’s Nocturne on this disc is dated 1911 and was composed originally for flute and piano, in which form it was recorded by Susan Milan and reviewed by Richard Burke in 19:2; and in an arrangement for flute and orchestra, in which form it was recorded by James Galway and reviewed by John Ditsky in 7:3. The alternate version for violin and piano was recorded by both Janine Jansen and Arnold Steinhardt, reviewed respectively by Robert Maxham in 34:6 and by John Bauman in 9:5. It’s a slight piece, just over three minutes in duration and somewhat in the style of a French salon number of the period, but the piano’s strangely Modernistic, off-kilter chords that accompany the none-too-rooted melody line, almost sound like they belong to a different piece. There’s something quirkily out of sync or out of sorts about this music that makes it strangely unsettling.p>

Frédéric Bednarz and Natsuki Hiratsuka are both new to me, though I see that they recorded a disc of Szymanowski and Shostakovich for this same label, which was well received by Robert Maxham in 38:2. For the Franck Sonata, of course, there is fierce competition, with many excellent versions to choose from. I will cite only two of my favorites, one of which is with Augustin Dumay and Maria João Pires on Deutsche Grammophon (not Dumay’s remake with Louis Lortie on Onyx), and the other one of which is with Vadim Repin and Nikolai Lugansky, also on Deutsche Grammophon.

Bednarz and Hiratsuka take a somewhat different and actually refreshing approach to the piece, adopting slightly quicker tempos in all four movements and avoiding other players’ tendencies to exaggerate some of the score’s expressive excesses. Franck can never be accused of the sin of French aloofness and reserve; if anything, his music was criticized in its own time for being practically salacious in its super-heated sensuality. Bednarz downplays that aspect of the work with measured vibrato and tempered tone, while Hiratsuka keeps the line flowing. I don’t wish to convey the impression that this is a performance cleansed of emotion or passion; to the contrary, there’s a real sense of rapport between these players and Franck’s music. Rather, I’d describe the reading as one that restores a sense of Gallic balance and refinement to a work in which point-making is often inflated and italicized for dramatic effect. The Lekeu Sonata, a piece which slowly grows on you, is also very well done. With this second Metis Islands release, Frédéric Bednarz and Natsuki Hiratsuka are well on their way to establishing themselves as a formidable violin and piano duo. Highly recommended.

LEKEU / FRANCK / BOULANGER