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Kevin Michki

Music Librarian, Daniel A. Reed Library

Adjunct Instructor, Musicology, School of Music.

State University of New York at Fredonia

Fredonia, NY

French Sonatas for Violin & Piano by Lin He (violin) and Gregory Sioles (piano)

Violinist Lin He and pianist Gregory Sioles have assembled French Sonatas for Violin & Piano, an ambitious recording of French violin and piano music spanning from 1911 to the height of the Second World War. Both performers are faculty members at Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge, and the compact disc was recorded in November of 2008 at the Louisiana State University Recital Hall. He's violin is a Tommaso Balestrieri from 1766; Sioles's piano is not identified in the program notes. This is He's first complete commercial recording, while Sioles has one other compact disc to his credit (also on the Centaur label). The disc features a contrasting trio of twentieth-century French sonatas for violin and piano by Claude Debussy, Maurice Ravel, and Francis Poulenc. Also included on the disc are two delightful miniatures: Debussy's “The Girl with the Flaxen Hair,” and Lili Boulanger's “Nocturne.”

Debussy finished his Sonata for Violin and Piano in 1915 while stricken with cancer. The third in a planned series of six sonatas for various instruments, this was the last work that Debussy would finish before his death in 1918. Now a staple of the violinist's repertoire, it is one of the most recorded of all French violin sonatas—so this new Centaur disc has plenty of competition! The most notable historic recording of the work is of the legendary duo of Yehudi Menuhin and Benjamin Britten (Menuhin, Britten, BBC Legends CD BBCL4083 [2001]). Modern interpretations abound; including those of Joshua Bell and Jean-Yves Thibaudet (Violin Sonatas, London/Decca CD 421 817-2 [1989]), and Midori and Robert McDonald (French Violin Sonatas: Debussy, Poulenc, Saint-Saëns, Sony CD 89699 [2002]). Though it is somewhat unfair to place any new recording of Debussy's Sonata up against such an impressive discography of performances, He and Sioles's interpretation has its own merits. Both performers exhibit great dynamic contrast throughout the work. He's intonation is precise, and he has a lyrical quality to his playing—brilliant in the upper register of the violin, with an appropriately breathy tone in quiet passages on the G string. Sioles is a very sensitive and precise pianist, and his playing is both lyrical and powerful.

Two shorter works follow the Debussy sonata. “The Girl with the Flaxen Hair” is a transcription, by American violinist Arthur Hartmann, of Debussy's “Le Fille aux Cheveux de Lin,” from Book 1 of his Preludes for Solo Piano. This is a well-known work; the transcription is a popular recital piece for violinists and has been recorded many times. Lili Boulanger (1893–1918), the younger sibling of her more famous sister, Nadia (1887–1979), composed the “Nocturne” for violin (or flute) and piano in 1911. Lili's brief life was full of illness; at the age of two years, she became sick with bronchial pneumonia, which then caused her immune system to become severely compromised. Because of her weakened state, she suffered from many chronic illnesses throughout her life, including a bout of intestinal tuberculosis to which she eventually succumbed.

Boulanger's “Nocturne” begins with an ostinato pattern in the piano, after which the violin joins in with an intensely beautiful, lyrical melody. The ostinato is present in the piano throughout, though it is transformed by ever-increasing harmonic complexity. The violin reaches a climax around the midpoint of the piece (1:50), and several measures later the solo piano briefly takes over the melody (2:14). A muted violin returns (2:34) with the piano to end the work.

Both He and Sioles perform superbly in this brief three-minute miniature, and it is certainly one of the highlights of this recording. The work, in its violin and piano incarnation, has been issued several times on compact disc, most recently in October 2010 by Janine Jansen and Itmar Golan (Beau Soir, Decca CD 4782256 [2010]). There is also a 2009 reissue of the notable 1967 recording by Yehudi Menuhin and Clifford Curzon, part of Menuhin's The Great EMI Recordings (EMI Classics CD 641312B [set]) (Concert for Violin, Piano, and String Quartet, EMI Classics CD 2 64153 2 [2009]).

Ravel's Sonata for Violin and Piano (1923–27) is quite different in concept and sound from Debussy's contribution to the genre. His last piece of chamber music, Ravel composed the sonata near the end of his neoclassical period. It is, appropriately enough, the only sonata on this recording that utilizes classical sonata form (although only in the first movement). Both He and Sioles are technically quite proficient in the Ravel work, and the ensemble playing between the two performers is impressive. At the beginning of the second movement there is a nice contrast between the bluesy lyricism of the violin and the plodding quarter note rhythms in the piano (0:28 and following). However, in the third movement (“Perpetuum Mobile”), He's sound on the G string is a bit too breathy, sometimes lacking a needed sharp precision; there is also a less articulated sautillé bow stroke here compared to that on the upper strings (1:46, and even more so at 2:40).

Ravel's Sonata, like Debussy's, doesn't suffer from a lack of superb recordings. A notable historic interpretation appears in a reissue of a 1966 recording by Arthur Grumiaux and István Hajdu (Philips CD 454 134-2 [1996]). More modern performances include Sarah Chang and Lars Vogt (Sonatas for Violin & Piano, EMI Classics CD 7243 5 57679 2 9 [2004]) and Vadim Repin and Boris Berezovsky (Violin Sonata, Erato CD 0630-15110-2 [1996]).

Poulenc actually wrote two early sonatas for violin and piano, but the composer discarded them both. The third and only extant sonata (1942-3) was dedicated to the persecuted Spanish writer Federico Garcia Lorca (1899–1936), who was killed during the Spanish Civil War. The sonata was written for and premiered by violinist Ginette Neveu (1919–49). It is a turbulent work, composed at the height of conflict during World War II; dark and jagged passages alternate with more lyrical sections. Celebrated performances during Poulenc's lifetime included those by violinists Arthur Grumiaux and Yehudi Menuhin, but there are relatively few modern recordings of this sonata, possibly due to its sheer technical difficulties and overall dark tone. He and Sioles excel both technically and musically in this work; this is by far the best performance on the disc, and their interpretation is a welcome addition to the Poulenc discography.

Overall, the ensemble playing in French Sonatas for Violin & Piano is excellent; obviously the two performers have worked together often as colleagues at LSU. He's intonation is good, and he generally produces a beautiful tone from the violin, even in the strident, virtuosic passages of the Ravel and Poulenc. Sioles's piano playing is consistently solid and precise throughout all of the works on the disc. Unfortunately for both performers, the piano sounds like it was pushed way too far to the background in this recording, causing some passages with the violin to be unbalanced and indistinct. Conversely, the microphone seems to have been placed too close to the violin, so much so that one can often hear the slap of the left-hand fingers against the fingerboard. Even with these minor sonic deficiencies in the recording, this collaboration between violinist Lin He and pianist Gregory Sioles is a fine addition to the catalogue of recordings currently available for these works.