Thursday, March 30, 2017

Pierre Fournier as Concerto Soloist

Following up on Mstislav Rostropovich: Complete Recordings on Deutsche Grammophon (DG), last month DG released another major cello anthology, The Pierre Fournier Edition: Complete Recordings on Deutsche Grammophon, Decca & Philips. (For those who do not already know, the Rostropovich collection also included his Decca and Philips recordings.) This is a more modest collection, 25 CDs compared with the 37 for Rostropovich. Also like Rostropovich, Fournier’s performances can be found on other labels; but his name tends to be less well known, particularly to the current generation that is only interested in what is trending in cyberspace.

Born on June 24, 1906, Fournier was about two decades older than Rostropovich. As another point of reference, his age puts him about halfway between Jascha Heifetz and Yehudi Menuhin. That makes him part of that early generation that benefitted from the proliferation of recorded performances. However, he also taught at the Paris Conservatoire between 1937 and 1949, meaning that he was in Paris during the Nazi occupation.

Fournier had little profile in the United States until he made his first tour in 1948. This turned out to have the consequences of bad timing, because the following year it was discovered that he had given 82 performances on Radio-Paris, the Nazi radio station broadcasting from France. This was sufficient to classify him as a Nazi collaborator, and he was punished by being banned from performing in France for six months. The recordings in this collection cover a period between 1952 and 1984, the latter being some of his last recordings, since he died on January 8, 1986.

As I had done for Rostropovich, I shall divide my examination of this collection into the concertante recordings and the chamber music recordings. (To the best of my knowledge, there are no recordings of Fournier as either a conductor or a piano accompanist.) I shall begin, again, with the concerto recordings.

In that genre there is little that is likely to surprise the listener familiar with the cello repertoire. Furthermore, the selections on the three CDs of Decca recordings all duplicate works that were also recorded by DG. In addition the Decca recordings come from the early Fifties, while most of the DG recordings are at least a decade later.

In many ways the collection is more interesting as a source of the conductors with whom Fournier recorded than it is of the cellist himself. For example, the Decca recording of Richard Strauss’ “Don Quixote” was made with conductor Clemens Krauss, who was particularly close to Strauss himself, while the DG recording is a session with the Berlin Philharmonic led by Herbert von Karajan. There is no faulting this latter recording for its clarity. However, even in the absence of later audio technology, there are more visceral qualities in Krauss’ interpretation; and Fournier responds to that conductor’s leadership in kind.

We must also bear in mind that most of the eighteenth-century repertoire labors under misconceptions of nineteenth-century thinking. This is most evident in Friedrich Grützmacher’s arrangement of Luigi Boccherini’s B-flat major cello concerto, which shows up on both the earlier Decca and the later DG recordings. These days we appreciate that eighteenth-century style for what it was and no longer feel that it needs to be aligned with more familiar nineteenth-century practices. Even more distressing is the E minor “concerto” by Antonio Vivaldi (again on both Decca and DG), which is actually a cello sonata arranged by Vincent d’Indy and Paul Bazelaire. (To be fair, however, Bazelaire was probably Fournier’s most influential teacher.)

On the more positive side Fournier definitely was thoroughly in touch with the visceral qualities of Antonín Dvořák’s Opus 104 cello concerto in both of the recordings in this collection. The earlier Decca has Rafael Kubelik conducting the Vienna Philharmonic, while the DG session has George Szell conducting the Berlin Philharmonic. Here I must confess personally that I cannot get enough of Kubelik, and his chemistry with Fournier was thoroughly engaging. At the same time Szell turned out to be quite a surprise, since so many of his Cleveland recordings were impressive for their precision but tended to lack much interest in rhetorical values that would take the performance beyond the marks on the score pages. The combination of Fournier and Vienna seems to have brought out the best in Szell, and this is definitely a recording I am likely to revisit.

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