Ferras Rhine Classics

Christian Ferras (violin)
à la mémoire d’un ange
rec. 1946-1971
Rhine Classics RH-023 [5 CD: 377]

The title of this 5 CD dedicated to French violinist Christian Ferras is ‘à la mémoire d’un ange’. It’s the title Alban Berg gave to his Violin Concerto, a work Ferras performed many times, but it could also apply to the violinist himself. The set was issued to commemorate the 40th anniversary of his tragic death in September 1982.

Ferras represented the very best attributes of the Franco-Belgian School. Born in Le Touquet, France in 1933, he entered the Conservatoire de Nice aged eight and from there progressed to the Paris Conservatoire. George Enesco was a mentor. He went on to forge a formidable career in his early years. He seemed to reach his apogee in the mid-sixties when his refined interpretations and intelligent musicianship attracted the attention of Herbert von Karajan, who invited him to record some of the mainstays of the violin concerto repertoire. Sadly, his life was to end tragically. Battling alcoholism and depression from the mid-sixties onwards, his career suffered as a result. He did, however, accept a professorship at the Paris Conservatoire in 1975, and made a brief comeback to concert-giving in the early part of 1982. Yet, this rehabilitation was to be short-lived. On 14 September 1982, he took his own life at the young age of 49.

The set opens with a recital from HR Studios, Frankfurt, recorded over two days in April 1954. It features Beethoven’s Kreutzer Sonata and the sonatas of Debussy and Enescu’s Third. Quite why the Enesco is in stereo whilst the Beethoven and Debussy are in mono seems odd. Ferras’ pianist is Pierre Barbizet. Their partnership dated back to 1949 when the violinist won second prize in the International Marguerite Long-Jacques Thibaud Competition. They stayed together for many years recording, amongst other things, a very successful complete cycle of the sonatas for violin and piano by Beethoven. Here that same meeting of minds and singularity of vision is ever present. The Kreutzer has all the weight and muscularity one could wish for, whilst the Debussy showcases Ferras’ exquisite tonal palette. The Enesco is the gem, improvisatory and flecked with Eastern exoticism and gypsy swagger.

There are two versions of Paganini’s Concerto No.1. The first has a piano accompaniment courtesy of Pierre Barbizet, whilst the second is partnered by the NDR Symphony Orchestra under Hans-Schmidt Isserstedt. Both date from 1954 and showcase Ferras’ violinistic arsenal to brilliant effect – staccatos, spiccatos, double stops, harmonics are all dispatched with brilliance, flare and élan.

Of familiar repertoire there’s a glowing reading of Bach’s Violin Concerto No.2 in E major from 1958 with the Toulouse orchestra under the direction Louis Auriacombe, a name completely new to me. I must single out for special praise the central Adagio for the way Ferras lovingly caresses the phrases. The Brahms Concerto from Boston a year later sees the violinist pairing up with Charles Munch and his Boston forces. There’s a real meeting of minds between soloist and conductor and an overall sense of shared purpose. Ferras utilizes the Kreisler cadenza. Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 3 in G major derives from a concert in Vatican City. Rudolf Kempe conducts the OS RAI Roma. It’s a fairly lacklustre performance where both soloist and conductor fail to find their feet. There’s a photo of Ferras in the booklet in audience with Pope John XX111 from 1963, which could well have taken place at the concert.

Berg’s Violin Concerto ‘To the Memory of an Angel’ was a great favorite of Ferras and it featured many times throughout his career. He made a commercial recording of it in stereo with the Orchestre de la Société des Concerts du Conservatoire under Georges Prêtre in 1963.  This performance was set down in Berlin in 1956 with Paul Kletzki at the helm of the RSO Berlin. Of the three or four versions I’ve heard, his interpretation remained fairly consistent. He was able to convey the tragedy and sense of loss weaved into the score with profound sensitivity. His reading of the second movement, with its contemplation of death, resignation and transcendence, is both intensely moving and imbued with introspection and angst.

Jean Martinon’s Violin Concerto No.2, Op. 51 is a welcome rarity. The performance took place in Rotterdam on 15 March 1970 with the Rotterdam Philharmonic and Jean Fournet. It’s a delightful score, rich in melody. The slow movement I particularly like for its  mercurial character and improvisatory feel. Fournet is wonderfully supportive, pointing up the rich colourful orchestration. The finale appeals for its quirky rhythms, spiky energy and angular outlines. In Lalo’s Symphonie espagnole Ferras omits the Intermezzo as was customary at the time. I’ve never understood why this movement was routinely omitted; thankfully Henry Merckel and Yehudi Menuhin both restored it in their early recordings of the work in 1932 and 1933 respectively. There’s a real Iberian flavour running through Ferras’ performance. The finale is particularly riveting, delivered with gusto and pizzazz.

I have reservations about the Sibelius Violin Concerto performance. This live recording from the Philharmonie, dated Berlin 25 September 1971, made with Karajan and the BPO, post dates their studio recording of 1964 by seven years. It’s the first movement for me which is problematic. Karajan’s conducting is beset by lethargy, not apparent in the studio recording. The other two movements I don’t have difficulty with. By far the best performance Ferras gave of this concerto is to be found on Youtube. It was filmed in Paris on May 26th 1965. Here the violinist is partnered by Zubin Mehta and the Orchestre National de ORTF. It’s an incandescent performance, electrifying and thrilling in its delivery.

Interspersed throughout the set are several short interviews the violinist gave at various times. All are in French. There are also some brief extracts of his playing. These include such fragments as the Dinicu-Heifetz Hora staccato, Beethoven’s Romance No.2, Ravel’s Tzigane and the cadenza of Federico Elizalde’s Violin Concerto.

This intriguing cache of live recordings makes a positive and welcome addition to the violinist’s already extensive discography. All is derived from well-preserved source material, and some applause has been retained to capture the atmosphere of the live event. The producer, Emilio Pessina, has provided an excellent biographical portrait of the artist in the accompanying booklet. 

Stephen Greenbank

Previous review: Jonathan Woolf

Availability: Rhine Classics

ContentsCD1 | 71:21
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)
Violin Sonata No.9 op.47 “à Kreutzer”
Claude Debussy (1862-1918)
Violin Sonata in G minor *
George Enescu (1881-1955)
Violin Sonata No.3 Op.25 “in popular romanian style”
Pierre Barbizet, piano | HR Frankfurt, 2 & 12*.IV.1954
early fragments & french interviews:
– Dinicu/Heifetz Hora staccato
– Beethoven Romanze No.2 Op.50
Mireille Monard, piano | RDF Paris, IX.1946

CD2 | 74:39
Niccolò Paganini (1782-1840)
Violin Concerto No.1 in D major, Op.6 (Cadenza: René Benedetti)
– 1 – (piano reduction) Pierre Barbizet | Paris, 5.III.1954
– 2 – NDR SO | Hans-Schmidt Isserstedt | Hamburg, 15.XI.1954
Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)
Violin Concerto No.2 in E major, BWV 1042
Orch. Ch Toulouse | Louis Auriacombe | Menton, 4.VIII.1958

CD3 | 73:09
Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)
Violin Concerto in D major, Op.77 (Cadenza: Kreisler)
BSO | Charles Munch | Boston, 7.III.1959
Christian Ferras speaks about his life and career | Geneva, 6.IV.1960
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791)
Violin Concerto No.3 in G major, K.216
OS RAI Roma | Rudolf Kempe | Vatican City, 20.IV.1963

CD4 | 76:05
Alban Berg (1885-1935)
Violin Concerto “To the Memory of an Angel”
RSO Berlin | Paul Kletzki | Berlin, 23.IV.1956
Christian Ferras speaks about Berg Violin Concerto | Geneva, 3.IV.1957
Jean Martinon (1910-1976)
Violin Concerto No.2 Op.51 (1958)
Rotterdam PO | Jean Fournet | Rotterdam, 15.III.1970
early fragments & French interviews:
– Elizalde Violin Concerto: Cadenza + speech w. Gaston Poulet & Federico Elizalde | RDF Paris, II.1948
– Ravel Tzigane | RDF Paris, I.1949

CD5 | 76:48
Ernest Chausson (1855-1899)
Poème Op.25
Orch. de Paris | Serge Baudo | New York, 24.X.1968
Édouard Lalo (1823-1892)
Symphonie espagnole in D minor, Op.21 (short version)
Orch. Phil ORTF | Roberto Benzi | Paris, 17.I.1971
Jean Sibelius (1865-1957)
Violin Concerto in D minor, Op.47
BPO | Herbert von Karajan | Berlin, 25.IX.1971