As I am teaching the Franck Sonata to a tremendously gifted young violinist, I listened yesterday morning to the first Thibaud/Cortot recording of the work, from 1923. This is on an archive cd of Jacques Thibaud’s 1922-23 HMV & 1924 Victor recordings. What gorgeous music making! Thibaud is in his early 40s, plays with very tight and fast vibrato, or none at all, and musically it makes even Heifetz sound like an automaton. On the same disk there are a number of small treasures, such as Rode Caprice No.18 and Wieniawski Caprice in a minor, both done with piano accompaniment and to perfection. Not only are the notes clean and clear and as fast as anyone’s since that time, but nothing sounds like an exercise as every measure is treated with utmost love, care and charm.
Thibaud played on a 1709 Strad that had belonged to Pierre Baillot, a famous French violinist and pedagogue (1771-1842). That magnificent violin was destroyed when Thibaud died in a plane crash in 1953. Thankfully we can still hear its wonderful sound on recordings, even if many of them sound scratchy compared to today’s products. And they are all unedited as all the takes were live. No fixing individual notes like these days.
Today I had some free time and decided to read through Baillot’s famous ‘The Art of the Violin’ again. The first part of the 500-page book is mainly musical examples, but later on the author becomes almost a philosopher, writing about style, musical character and such. One of my favorite analyses is how a violin soloist should stand when playing with an orchestra. Baillot’s preferred solution: keep the orchestra in the pit and give the stage to the soloist. This way he can both face the audience and have perfect contact with the orchestra and its conductor. Also the balance is likely to be better. If this works with opera, why not in a concert!
An interesting chapter is about Undulated Sounds: 1. Undulation Produced by the Bow [Portato], 2. Undulation Produced by the Left Hand [Vibrato], 3. Combination of both. This, like every chapter, gives a lot of food for thought. The French may not have been very supportive with us regarding Iraq, but without them music, especially violin playing, would not have reached the heights it did many decades ago.