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Guillaume Lekeu
Albéric Magnard

Violin Sonatas

Irina Muresanu, piano
Dana Ciocarlie, violin


Guillaume Lekeu

Sonata in G
Very moderate – Brisk and passionate
Very slow
Very lively

Albéric Magnard

Sonata opus 13
Very brisk
Wide – Lively

Total playing time: 70'28
Production, Sound Engineer:
Jean-Marc Laisné
Recorded at Charrat Muses, Switzerland, 15-16-17-18th December 2005.
Booklet : Nicolas Southon

AR RE-SE 2006-0

From one bow, two elegies

By way of a Prologue: August 1889, Bayreuth...

… on the “green hill” where stands the stately Festspielhaus, finished fifteen years ago after the wishes of Richard Wagner, two composers meet. Like many others in a Europe struck with a violent Wagnerian fever, they gave into the Bayreuthian pilgrimage to attend the performances of Parsifal, Tristan und Isolde, and Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. A mutual friend introduces them: Théodore de Wyzewa, one of the Paris glitteratti, a writer and the founder of the famous Revue wagnérienne. The two young men are called Guillaume Lekeu and Albéric Magnard, 19 and 24 years old respectively. And the former frankly expresses his opinion of the latter: “I was introduced to Vincent d’Indy’s only student, Magnard. He did not give me a good impression. I saw in him neither a musician nor an artist, at least in everything I heard him say, and he has, it seems, above all a very subtle mind, very parisian and facile, which may be a prodigious quality but one that is useless to those who want to accomplish serious things. Besides, I think I made a poor impression on him. I don’t think I’m very sociable, it’s disgusting.”

Far from being fortuitous, this meeting in Bayreuth is very telling about the debates that agitated musical circles at the time. Only one question sums them up: for or against Wagner? Massenet makes the trip to make sure that he is right not to give into the charms of “old Klingsor”, d’Indy, on the contrary, comes to commune with the greatness of the lyrical drama – and both of them, as Magnard tells it, hypocritically bow and scrape to each other between sarcastic attacks. This is how it goes in the Parisian musical life as seen from Bayreuth. As for Lekeu and Magnard, they are engulfed in the work of Wagner which will become an essential part of their heritage. We hardly know anything about the relations they maintain after their first meeting, and it does not matter: the essential is to see them already taking a position in artistic circles. Among the thousand roads that opened up to them, their paths were to have much in common.

Guillaume Lekeu, or the unfinished destiny

Until his bayreuthian journey, Guillaume Lekeu (1870-1894) only practiced composition as an autodidact. As a child, there were first some piano and violin classes in his native Belgium. At fifteen, Guillaume had a passion for Beethoven’s quartets and the work of Wagner. Then comes the shock of the trip to Bayreuth, and immediately thereafter, the determining meeting with César Franck, who accepts to take the young artist under his wing. With his Master, Lekeu perfects his technique and gains confidence in himself. A period of truly creative efflorescence follows, during which Guillaume tries to give life to his music as a place of pure emotionalism: “I only want to translate felt emotions in music, because music in itself is the most idiotic art, noise and nothing else; by the feeling that it contains it is the noblest, the most sublime, because it is the most immaterial”, he affirms already in 1887. In Bayreuth, Guillaume fainted during Tristan: this denotes the sensitivity of the young man.

Alas, César Franck dies in the beginning of November 1890. It is a hard blow for Lekeu. Fortunately, Wyzewa introduces him to the very renowned Vincent d’Indy (to whom the Franckist torch was passed as the principal disciple of the late Master). At his side, Guillaume polishes his style, tames an overwhelming imagination, and conjugates his influences into a personal language. In order to make the young man confident in his capacities, d’Indy pushes him to compete in the Belgian Prix de Rome during the summer of 1891. Named first during the eliminatory trials, Lekeu only obtains a second place with his cantata Andromède… a reward that he refuses. A partial execution of the work takes place on February 18, 1892 at the “Cercle des XX”, an artistic association in Brussels of which d’Indy is one of the spearheads. On that occasion, the violinist Eugène Ysaÿe notices Lekeu: “At the end of the concert he took me in his arms saying at the top of his voice that my Andromède was the work of an ‘artist’ and of a ‘great musician’, that he had never heard a work from a young man that was both as wise and as passionate as mine. He introduced me to his students: ‘This is a student of Old Franck who is the only one among all of the musicians in this day and age who writes something other than imitations of Wagner – not that he does not know him thoroughly’”. Even better: Ysaÿe demands a violin sonata from Lekeu. “Isn’t it some luck to hear one’s work played by Ysaÿe!…”, he exclaims (… a phrase that Magnard would have no doubt loved to claim for himself a few years later).

Taking great care in its conception, Lekeu gives birth to what will without a doubt be his masterpiece. A private performance of the Sonata takes place on October 6, 1892. Lekeu is at the piano, Ysaÿe on violin: “This devil of a man really metamorphosizes all of the works that he interprets. I will certainly never be able to manage to repay Ysaÿe for all of the affection he lavishes upon me”. On March 7 of the following year, the work is officially created by the violinist who ordered it and by Caroline Théroine on piano at the Cercle des XX. It is an immense success: “You cannot imagine what my violin Sonata became with Ysaÿe on violin. I am still terror-stricken in my delight”, Lekeu writes to one of his friends. The composer then works on a Quartet with piano – once again sollicited by Ysaÿe. But the work remains unfinished: at the end of 1893, Guillaume contracts typhoid fever and never recovers. He dies on January 21, 1894 at the age of 24, taking with him the promise of an already high-level work which bears witness to a talent exceptionally favored by the Muses.

Albéric Magnard, or the misunderstood genius

Albéric Magnard (1865-1914) is integrated very early into parisian intellectual life: his father is the very influential director of the Figaro. Often provocative, boasting a cultivated artist’s pride, advocating clear-cut opinions to the point of insincerity, Magnard hides a solitary and tormented personality, profoundly marked by the death of his mother when he was only four years old. He finds refuge in literature, science, philosophy and music. Almost nothing escapes him, he is one of those people who succeeds at everything. His -father destines him to a career as a lawyer. But, already intransigent with himself, the young man does not want to abandon his true vocation: all while pursuing his law studies to satisfy his father’s expectations, he enters the classes of Dubois and Massenet at the Conservatory.

Two years of work and a first prize in Harmony later, he deems that he has nothing more to learn from this academic teaching, turned towards a Prix de Rome that hardly attracts him. His friend Ropartz, whom he met on the Conservatory benches, introduces him to Franck’s circle of students. As soon as 1888, Magnard therefore sollicits Vincent d’Indy’s advice while definitively giving up on the Bar. He presents the author of the Chant de la cloche with some counterpoint and orchestration work, but also with his own work: the first two Symphonies, the opera Yolande. Magnard marries and discovers while finishing his third Symphony that he is stricken with partial deafness. From now on his isolation verges on misanthropy. Protected from hardship, he can compose, but remains sorely absent from Parisian concert programs.

In 1901, after finishing his second opera Guercoeur, he decides to “try [his] hand at a sonata for violin and piano”. The work will be the grounds of a conflict with the musician it was dedicated to, Eugène Ysaÿe. “It’s a cathedral!”, the violinist initially proclaims after the first rehearsals. But when he creates the Sonata (backed up by Raoul Pugno on piano) on May 2, 1902, at the Salle Pleyel, the public’s reaction remains very reserved. As for the press, it is looking elsewhere: two days earlier, the premiere of a work named Pelléas et Mélisande took place at the Opéra-Comique. While he should have defended it, Ysaÿe abandons the work, – giving Magnard the false impression that he will play it again. The composer, who ends up understanding, keeps his pride in his resentment: “My sonata exists regardless of all of the wood and ivory scratchers.”

In 1912, however, a critic will observe that the work “is highly appreciated today by artists. The richness of thought, the purity of inspiration make this powerful work a model of the rejuvenated classical genre.” Thus Magnard’s Sonata, just like his entire work, ended up finding its defenders as the years passed, despite the failures, despite the oppositions, despite the voluntary discretion and isolation of the composer, retired since 1904 in his Manoir des Fontaines in Baron, Oise. This is where on September 3, 1914 his tragic end arrives. While nothing was stopping the approaching German troops, he decided to defend his estate alone – his family found refuge in a safe place. The enemy soldiers appear, Magnard, on guard, kills one of them. The Germans counterattack, then, in vengeance, set fire to the manor. Albéric’s body would be found in the debris. Nothing indicates whether he was shot down by the enemy, whether he perished in the fire, or had put an end to his days before the fire broke out.

The Sonatas for violin and piano by Guillaume Lekeu and Albéric Magnard

The Sonata for piano and violin in G major by Guillaume Lekeu (1892) finds its formal coherence in the use of a cyclical principle. It follows the example of its model, the illustrious Sonata for piano and violin by Franck, which precedes it by six years. Indeed, one of the themes from the first movement appears in the following episodes, while the use of recurring intervals links organically the whole discourse. The structure thus responds to highly ordered development procedures. It would be vain, however, to scrutinize its unfolding. -Lekeu’s work remains irreducible to any formal scholastic, although he was sometimes unjustly reproached to have given into it with too much complacency. Admittedly, the composer follows the example of Franck’s cyclical formalism, but it is to make out of each of the Sonata’s three movements a long song, narrative in the embrace of the two instruments, where the intertwining of the themes and the numerous melodic kinships constantly recall what was already said. The unity of expression dominates this perpetual burst, so very characteristic of Lekeu’s writing – as is the melancholic and vivid atmosphere nourished by the restless chromatic language inspired to the franckist school by Wagner.

The first movement (“Très modéré” then “Vif et passionné”) posits the equity of the instrumental dialogue from the outset: the eloquence of the piano is in no way inferior to the ample voice of the violin, which is suggested in the appearance order of the instruments in the title of the work. The introduction theme given by the violin (“cyclical” according to Franckist rhetoric) is of a painful character, still accentuated by the general drop that it sketches. Despite the two main themes of the movement, the sonata form development will take place in the introduction, before the reexposition and the coda. The second movement, “Très lent”, has a deploratory, choral and meditative character all at once. Full of a noble and grave stateliness, it unfolds a felicitously rustic theme in its central part (“Très simplement et dans le sentiment d’un chant populaire” [“Very simply and in the feeling of a popular song”], Lekeu prescribes). The third movement, “Très animé”, is constructed upon two main themes around which numerous flashbacks of previous episodes are transplanted. In a passionate atmosphere, the work finishes on a brilliant presentation of the cyclical theme that opened it.

The most vast work of Magnard, if one leaves out his operas, is his Sonata for violin and piano in G major (1901). Just as demanding for its listeners (who must consent to its enormous span) as for its performers (engaged with the biggest technical difficulties), this composition places itself among the monuments of French chamber music. A measure of just how filled with doubt Magnard was is given by his declaring to Dukas, after finishing his magnificent Sonata, that he still lacked “the purity of heart and thought that makes masterpieces”.

The slow introduction of the first movement (“Large”) leaves the violin to freely pour its heart out. Punctuated by some piano chords, it is a reverie that seems to want to gather its musical force; to then launch, suddenly, a first effusive theme with conquering accents. The sonata form unfurls in a powerful fervor (“Animé”), throughout selected, subtly dosed harmonic colors, based for the most part on a diatonic transparence. The whole thing consumes itself in a transfigured reminder of the introduction, before the joyous overflow of the coda. The second movement (“Calme”) is an immense elegy whose gradual blaze rests on the increasingly richer ornamentation of the two alternating themes (we are not far from Beethoven’s very last opuses). The scherzo (“Très vif”) sets itself apart with its -overwhelming energy. With a writing that is full of virtuosity, this movement is almost of a popular character, even though there are no real folkloric elements used. Its coda leads into the fourth and last movement of the work, which features a tightly built sonata form. After the slow introduction (“Large”) comes an exposition that overflows with diverse thematic elements. Noteworthy is a fugue passage in the development and, before the reexposition, the return of the introduction. As a denouement to his work, Magnard offers an incredibly pure prayer which provides an ecstatic and surreal conclusion to his “cathedral”, a consoled resignation conquered on sadness and anguish.

By way of a Coda: August, 1889, Bayreuth

… on the “green hill”, Magnard and Lekeu crossed paths with d’Indy, Massenet, Chabrier, Chausson, but also (hardly more famous than them at this time), Debussy, de Bréville, Leborne, Ropartz, Schmitt. The fate-laden paths of musical Europe will be carved with these names. Wagner’s hold is powerful on all of them. But not at all unconditional; the best example of it will be Debussy, obviously. At the close of this discourse, it may be suitable to differentiate between Magnard and Lekeu on this aspect – which is significant to their respective aesthetics.

From the hands of Franck and d’Indy they both receive the legacy of the Master of Bayreuth. The cyclical form, taken up by Lekeu, is not without a connection to the usage of the Leitmotiv: it structures the time and the form with the return of characteristic elements. It is not difficult to understand what the restless modulations, the sinuous chromatism, and the almost unbearable expressive density of the Belgian composer owe to Wagner (the unfinished Quatuor avec piano would be the best example). Magnard, although fascinated by the Gesamtkunstwerk, to which he dedicated a study in 1894, keeps some distance on the other hand. For him, the cult of another God dominates: as his four Symphonies proclaim it, Beethoven is for him the absolute model of his longing for perfection. Magnard’s language is of a diatonic essence, and the research of colors only rarely counts among his motives – he prefers to use effects sparsely and make his writing vigorous. Moreover, the composer is not reluctant to use modal phrases; in this respect, he remains undeniably French (his Suite for piano had attested to this).

Two curiously close lives, and yet two very distinctive musical styles… The only real weakness of Magnard and Lekeu is to have left their work too soon an orphan.

Nicolas Southon, october 2006
Translation: Jennifer Arenson-Escorcia
Nicolas Southon teaches at the Musicology Department of the Université de Tours. Affiliated with the CNRS (National Center for Scientific Research, IRPMF), he is preparing a thesis in social history dealing with the emergence of the orchestra conductor in the 19th century. He has received the Analysis, Aesthetics, and Music History prizes from the Paris Conservatoire national supérieur de musique. He has also been a critic and a journalist in specialized music reviews and a producer for France-Musique.

The Press covers it !

« (...) to stay with things original and with Dana Ciocarlie, I can only recommend to you the magnificent CD (AR RE-SE 2006-0) that she just recorded with her countrywoman, violonist Irina Muresanu. Lekeu’s Sonata for violin and piano combined with the lesser-known but just as beautiful Sonata composed by Albéric Magnard (1865-1941): a welcome change from the usual Franck-Lekeu association! A CD to be discovered as soon as possible. », 6 april 2006, Alain Cochard

« The combination of Lekeu’s Sonata with Magnard’s is a natural one, since these are the two main masterpieces of post-Franckist chamber music, displaying a somewhat agitated late romanticism. These works did not have the same success: Lekeu’s sonata became a repertoire piece, whereas Magnard’s remained confidential for a long time, probably due to its difficulty. None of them, however, really attracted the big shots of violin (so to say). Menuhin and his sister recorded Lekeu at the age of the 78 rpm records (Biddulph). Grumiaux left a moving performance of this work at the beginning of his career for Philips. Later on, Ferras and Barbizet became references (DG), in spite of Poulet and Lee’s qualities (Arion). There are a few other lesser-known recordings that are not always uninteresting. As for Magnard, the listing is quicker. The sonata was brought to attention by the Zimansky-Keller duo (Accord); Dumay and J.-P. Collard (EMI) and Pasquier and Sermet (Naive) then completed a sparse but rich discography. Irina Muresanu and Dana Ciocarlie are both originally from Rumania. The pianist is better-known in France than the violonist who leads a distinguished international career and teaches in Boston. Irina Muresanu is an extraordinary performer, with a powerful, full, extremely lyrical tone that is also very controlled. She particularly knows how to manage, in perfect agreement with her partner, the long stretches of the discourse, especially in Magnard’s work. What could be verbose becomes epic, narrative, always thought out and put into a narrative (especially in the second and fourth movements of Magnard’s Sonata). The main concern of “Franckist” composers was construction: these ladies can build a solid cathedral-sonata, and with extraordinary sound refinements. For instance, in the development of the Très lent (“Very slow”) movement in Lekeu’s sonata, some unheard-of moon-like tones are offered. These recordings are real marvels. I personally prefer Ferras’s style in Lekeu’s sonata, which combines lightness and power (the Franco-Belgian school!). In the Magnard, on the other hand, this is the highest level, in spite of Dumay. »

Classica-Répertoire, May 2006, Jacques Bonnaure

« Sonates pour violon features Boston-based Romanian violinist Irina Muresanu and her regular duet partner, pianist Dana Ciocarlie, who is also Romanian, but based in France. These two violin sonatas compliment one another well on CD, and it appears they have never before been combined in this way, although both sonatas have been used as filler for the famous Franck A minor violin sonata. Both composers studied with Vincent D'Indy, both of these sonatas were premiered by the Belgian violinist Eugen Ysayë and both represent the French post-Romantic idiom in its finest hour. Irina Muresanu is superb in both these works, with a rich, sweet, full tone that does a measure of justice to Ysayë's style of interpretation – she even makes judicious use of forbidden portamenti that is appropriate to the period and idiom of the music. Ciocarlie invests a lot of emotion into the piano parts, and while at times the piano seems a tad loud, it never overshadows Muresanu. The intensity of Ciocarlie's playing pays off dividends in the Magnard, which is given to abrupt shifts of mood and violent contrasts. Neither of these sonatas has been overexposed, and their pairing here is certainly welcome (...). In every other respect, this will be of strong interest to the growing number of listeners interested in the late French Romantics. »

All Music Guide, April 2007, David N. Lewis

« The mercurially immediate appeal of Guillaume Lekeu’s Violin Sonata has kept it in the fringe repertoire, attracting distinguished interpreters (to say nothing of the irrepressible legion of the mediocre) in classic disc performances beginning with the young Menuhin in 1938 and including Lola Bobesco, Arthur Grumiaux, and the dynamite team of Augustin Dumay and Jean-Philippe Collard. Albéric Magnard’s work — unless I’ve missed something — receives here only its fifth recorded performance and the only one currently available. A late discovery, the Violin Sonata remains virtually unknown. Magnard’s neglect owes both to his passing at the beginning of the Great War and to the peculiarly saturnine properties of his music. By the time the carnage was over, the Jazz Age was in full swing, followed closely by the rival claims of Stravinsky’s neo-Classicism and Schoenberg’s atonality dividing the camp followers of the “advanced.” In this atmosphere, the Franck legacy, which Magnard inherited from his teacher, d’Indy, and the Beethoven worship evident in his most ambitious works, were decidedly vieux jeu and would require fully two generations — 70 years — to take on the aura of old gold. Nor is his Violin Sonata an easy work to know. The repeated exposition of its first movement, for instance, beset with pseudo-improvised feints, is at once sculpted and quivering, its lyricism aristocratically aloof yet exquisitely vaulting. The upshot, like the man himself, is abrupt and disconcerting. For the connoisseur, that means substantial, fascinating, a work meeting Wallace Stevens’s requirement for poetry — that it resist the intellect almost successfully. Muresanu and Ciocarlie seem at home in it, the former singing and soaring with aplomb, the latter — hand-in-glove — whipping up Magnard’s symphonically conceived piano-writing with attuned dexterity; though, for ultimate finesse, the collector will want the 1989 Dumay/Collard account (nla EMI 49890). Lekeu’s Sonata is served with sizzling verve on either side of the central berceuse — given with a rapt mixture of poetry and gentle élan — a performance competitive with any (but, again, marginally overtopped by Dumay and Collard in a 1981 LP album, EMI C 73037). Liner notes by Nicolas Southon, drawing on Simon-Pierre Perret’s biography, Albéric Magnard (Paris: Fayard, 2001), recounts the first meeting of the composers at the 1889 Bayreuth Festival — the effusive Lekeu, Franck’s last composition pupil, living at the edge of his skin, and Magnard, the hardboiled Parisian boulevardier, did not exactly hit it off. Sound is boxy in quieter passages, the piano slipping into recess, but detailed, balanced, and immediate as things get going. A valuable, vivacious issue; enthusiastically recommended. »

Fanfare Magazine, May 2007, Adrian Corleonis