Little and Lane may become as celebrated a double act as Little and Large, if Chandos gives them their head and lets them set down a goodly selection of repertoire. Now an established duo, the violinist and pianist match and balance each other very well. I cannot resist pointing out that they are not the first English-Australian combination to record César Franck’s Sonata, as Marjorie Hayward and Una Bourne committed their interpretation to wax for HMV on 21 January 1919 and it was issued on two plum-label 78rpm discs that July. Very fine it is, too, despite being cut down to one four-minute side per movement. Later versions, including the recording made for HMV by Jacques Thibaud and Alfred Cortot on 22 October 1923, were allocated four discs. By then the A-major Sonata was one of the most popular in the repertoire, often chosen by great violinists for their recitals. Goodness knows how their accompanists fared, as the piano part is fearsome and the pianist sets the tone for each movement.
Luckily the 78rpm era did see quite a few recordings by proper duos: a re-make by Thibaud and Cortot – the one I still always hear in my mind’s ear – and performances by Joan Massia with Blanche Selva, Alfred Dubois with Marcel Maas, Jascha Heifetz with Artur Rubinstein and Zino Francescatti with Robert Casadesus. All of those have found their way on to CD. What most of those old interpretations have in common is an elasticity of tempo and an almost perfumed Romanticism which is difficult to replicate today – audiences would probably be nonplussed by such an approach.
Piers Lane starts the Allegretto probingly and Tasmin Little restrains her natural vibrancy to keep her tone pure, although of course she has to turn up the heat at climaxes. The music moves in long-breathed phrases and the duo observe a wide dynamic range, finishing the movement quietly. The Allegro gets stormier and more obviously virtuosic; again they observe a wide range of dynamics and, as they understand each other well, the various tempo changes are convincingly handled. The ‘Recitativo-Fantasia’ demands a rhapsodic approach and both players adopt the necessary ‘speaking’ style for the ‘Recitativo’, with Little maintaining as much tonal purity as she can: her trills are impressive and she plays beautifully as they move into the ‘Fantasia’. This is the holy-of-holies – Thibaud used to be incomparable here – and both players maintain the tension until the quiet close. The Finale is the famous canon and the violin sings lyrically, sailing along against a hell of a piano part: the duo manage to increase the tension without going over the top, the climaxes really tell, the final bars are exciting, and, in sum, this is a distinguished version.
Fauré’s Romance is rarely recorded on its own, usually getting tucked into a corner of complete cycles of the composer’s music for violin and piano. A charming piece in the usual song form, it has a lyrical main theme and a rather agitated contrasting central section. Little and Lane play it as beautifully as they can, the violinist employing a touch of portamento, and it makes a pleasant bridge to the sterner stuff of Szymanowski’s Sonata.
Born into the Polish-Ukrainian landed class, Karol Szymanowski should have led a charmed life, but a childhood injury kept him from the usual boys’ escapades and, as he grew up, his homosexuality made him an outsider. He did not want for friends: he was at the centre of the Young Poland group, including the violinist Paweł Kochański, the pianists Harry Neuhaus and Artur Rubinstein, and the conductor Grzegorz Fitelberg; and he helped to publish other composers’ music. The members of the group had different destinies: Neuhaus moved east to make his career in Russia, Szymanowski, Kochański and Rubinstein opted for the west, while Fitelberg kept a foot in both camps. The Great War and other circumstances bore down on Szymanowski and he died ill and in poverty, having lost his friend Kochański not long before. But their collaboration had given rise to a valuable number of violin works, including two Concertos. Even when Kochański did not give the première of a work, it was his refined sound that Szymanowski had in his head; and he also made transpositions of shorter pieces by Szymanowski.
The D-minor Violin Sonata of 1904 was actually dedicated to another violinist friend, Bronisław Gromadzki; and among the influences that fed into it, along with Scriabin, Richard Strauss, Reger and so on, was the Franck A-major. It starts with a bold gesture and a stormy first subject, and in this work Little feels free to lay on the vibrancy. Although the Patetico second main theme is more lyrical, the whole first movement demands a passionate response, which it gets. The second, which combines slow movement and Scherzo, is also well played, from its ruminative start to its quiet ending (but see below); and the Finale, which is very virtuosic, starting with a statement of intent before the two instruments set off on an almost skipping tarantella-like theme, maintains the high standard. Szymanowski throws in some ‘learned’ writing and there are trills in the violin, also some quite sunny phrases, before the emphatic ending.
The Romance of 1910 is very Reger-like in its chromaticism. Little plays it most passionately, backed to the hilt by Lane, and they handle the very quiet closing bars nicely. The Nocturne and Tarantella comes from 1915, the year of the famous Mythes, and gives us the pure Szymanowski of his exotic-Romantic phase, when he had travelled extensively, including to Italy, Sicily and North Africa, and had greatly expanded his range of references. The Nocturne opens remarkably quietly but becomes most un-nocturne-like in its virtuosity. Little and Lane are a little slow to pick up on the Habanera rhythm, as if surprised to find it there, but it is typical of Szymanowski to be able to mix Spanish and Italian and Eastern European styles, making of them something completely his own. The Tarantella is one of the more extrovert things he composed, but the exuberance of the Italian dance is shot through with his particular brand of Romanticism, as well as the conflicting rhythm of the Georgian Lezghinka sword dance, and is even held back at one point, where Little keeps her tone angelically pure. She and Lane negotiate all the hurdles – the final dance episode is really testing – and keep up their impetus to the end.
As the recordings are uniformly excellent, supporters of Little and Lane can feel free to invest, knowing that they have acquired five performances of quality. The duo can hold their heads up high in virtually all company with the Franck Sonata, so I shall not even bother to make invidious comparisons. With Szymanowski, the situation is not so straightforward. The finest Szymanowski violin-and-piano disc I know is probably virtually impossible to find now, but fanatical collectors will either have it or know how to get it. It features the distinguished Polish-Ukrainian violinist Oleh Krysa (called Oleg in Russia) and his wife, the Russian pianist Tatiana Tchekina (Triton 17 016). Coming from a similar cultural background, Krysa has a palpable identification with Szymanowski’s music that the English-Australian pair cannot be expected to match. He and Tchekina make something special of the Scherzando passage in the central movement of the Sonata, where the violin plays pizzicato against stabs from the piano. He produces an extraordinary hollow sound at the start of the Nocturne, and he and his wife relish the Habanera rhythm. In the Tarantella, the Ukrainian-Russian duo tear into the Italian and Georgian passages with a hint of savagery, really pouncing on the rhythms. I should mention another excellent Szymanowski disc by Alina Ibragimova and Cédric Tiberghien (Hyperion CDA67703): they add the Romance and Berceuse to the Krysas’ programme of the Sonata, Nocturne and Tarantella, Mythes and three Paganini Caprices arranged by Szymanowski. They also have their moments and if the Polish composer is your main concern, they must come into the reckoning.
For the Chandos disc, Roger Nichols writes an interesting booklet note, as usual, but inexplicably fails to point out the cyclic nature of Franck’s Sonata, with thematic material repeated and transformed; and he states that Kochański was a member of the Warsaw Philharmonic – perhaps a confusion with the title “soloist of the Warsaw Philharmonic”.