This is an exceptional release. Cédric Tiberghien has been impressing me since I first encountered him at the festival in Cahors, giving an outstanding open-air recital in one of the town squares and competing successfully with an over-insistent blackbird which had stationed itself on a good vantage point. He appears to be capable of any technical feat and he produces great surges of sonority with seemingly effortless ease. In recent years his partnership with Alina Ibragimova has been a feature of the Hyperion catalogue, but I do not think they have risen to quite these heights before.
Most of their recital revolves around the substantial figure of the great Belgian violinist Eugène Ysaÿe, and they begin with his own Poème élégiaque. This piece, which had a considerable effect on Chausson when he came to write his much greater Poème for Ysaÿe, influencing him with its mood and even some of its thematic material, is a far from negligible creation. Inspired by Romeo and Juliet, it is best heard with orchestra – there is an excellent version by Albrecht Breuninger on an Ysaÿe release (CPO 777 051-2) – but if you are going to have a pianist instead, it might as well be Tiberghien, who plays beautifully from the start with a wonderfully even touch. The opening quiet section is splendidly done and the slow part inspired by the Tomb Scene is well sustained, with a dramatic climax finely handled by both musicians; then comes a really withdrawn episode, very soft with the violin tone down to a thread, before the opening lyrical mood returns and the piece ends with violin trills.
Most people will be attracted by the César Franck. I was a little dubious, having heard the opening bars on the radio, so I pulled out the version of the Sonata that has haunted me since I first encountered it: Jacques Thibaud and Alfred Cortot, recorded by HMV in 1929. Amazingly, the Hyperion duo are within a few seconds of the HMV team in three of the movements – obviously they do slightly different things within each movement, in this elastic work, but their timings are similar except in the third, where they take forty-five seconds longer. Heard in context, their opening, heralded by lovely tone from Tiberghien, is fine. Ibragimova takes her cue from him with a thoughtful statement of the main theme and the Allegretto ben moderato proceeds with great naturalness to its emphatic ending. Tiberghien makes a terrific start to the Allegro: Ibragimova’s G-string tone sounds a bit forced and squeezed for my taste but they are quickly on terms with each other and she introduces the quiet theme superbly. They get back to the torrents of notes, especially from the piano, very cleverly and while indulging in a passionate outpouring, they handle the tempo variations in a masterly way. Tiberghien starts the ‘Recitativo’ of the third movement atmospherically and Ibragimova matches him with her contribution: this movement features lovely quiet playing from her, terrific sonority from him. As the ‘Fantasia’ develops, they keep up the intensity so that the violin’s meanderings never become mere passagework: the haunting quiet idea introduced by the violin – Thibaud is unforgettable here – is subtly phrased by Ibragimova against the piano’s accompaniment; passion is let loose again, then the movement ends quietly, almost plaintively. The canon in the Finale is taken at an ideal tempo: as it becomes more passionate, the two players stay absolutely together, there is heroic virtuosity from Tiberghien and the closing triumphant bars are tremendous.
Louis Vierne’s Sonata, requested by Ysaÿe and first played by him and Pugno in 1908 – so Roger Nichols’s helpful booklet note tells us – is a horse of a different colour for the most part. Our duo are straight out of the blocks in the Allegro risoluto: the first theme has an almost skipping character, the second is more lyrical and this interestingly written movement comes to a really exciting close. Lovely playing by Tiberghien launches the Andante sostenuto, singing in character: Ibragimova’s quiet playing is also very nice. We hear more from him, more from her, then the Agitato section, much louder but not faster, then the Più animato episode: the intensity builds up until a long violin trill ushers in a return to the opening mood and a quiet ending. The brief Intermezzo: Quasi vivace is scherzando in character with a witty close. It is delicately played. With the dramatic start to the Largamente and a revisiting of the second movement, we are finally in the world of the Franck Sonata: suddenly the duo switch to the Allegro agitato, with two main motifs. We hear coruscating virtuosity from Tiberghien, aided and abetted by Ibragimova, before the exciting ending with both at full stretch.
As a little encore, we are given the Nocturne by a shortlived genius of a later era, Lili Boulanger. The players put passion into it, besides the nocturnal calm, and there is an intriguing Debussy quotation before the quiet ending. The recordings of all four works are so good that I barely registered them.
Diehard collectors may care to be reminded of some great versions of the Franck Sonata. In acoustic 78rpm days there were several abridged recordings but only one that was complete, the Victor set by Thibaud and Cortot which some people prefer to their electric remake mentioned above. Other notable electric 78rpm versions included the Catalan violinist Joan Massia with Blanche Selva, Spalding with Benoist, Dubois (one of the greatest Ysaÿe pupils) with Maas, Bobescu with Genty, Heifetz with Rubinstein (one of the violinist’s few Sonata recordings with a decent piano presence), and even better, Francescatti with Casadesus. Fine mono LP versions were those by Oistrakh with Oborin, much better than the violinist’s later misalliances with Richter, and Pierre Doukan with his wife Thérèse Cochet. Since the beginning of the stereo era the floodgates have opened and no doubt everyone will have favourite versions. Three of mine are Ferras with Barbizet, Chung with Lupu, and Dumay with Collard. More recently Repin has teamed up with Lugansky and Perlman has at last found a great partner in Argerich. Not every predictable violinist has achieved a really recommendable interpretation – Grumiaux and Kogan, for instance, would not find a place on my list despite enjoyable attempts.