If anybody is, then Zoltán Kocsis is truly a musical artist in the Renaissance sense: he explores ever greater areas of his profession, and takes possession of new realms. Initially, we looked on with incomprehension, asking why as a pianist of genius, he did not devote himself exclusively to his instrument. Why was he dissipating his creative energies is so many fields: teaching, conducting, writing essays, creating concert programs, forming societies and building an orchestra – and of course, there was his composition as well. But these days, we really have to acknowledge that with Kocsis, this is not some sporting achievement, but utilising the Wagnerian term – a kind of “Gesamtkunstwerk” activity.
Leonard Slatkin is an exceptionally versatile conductor, but it is perhaps in French repertoire of the 19th and 20th centuries that he feels most comfortable. The singers in Ravel's exquisitely formed little comic opera L'Heure espagnole, complete with cheating lovers hidden inside grandfather's clocks carried up and down stairs, are all entirely appropriate and admirably clear, but it is really Slatkin who's the star here, right from the "Introduction" that's so artfully linked to what follows. Ravel here cultivates a kind of updated accompanied recitative, well matched to his stated goal of reviving the old tradition of Italian opera buffa.
This venerable recording by the Italian Quartet from 1965 was, for many years, the standard reference copy of both works either individually or as a coupling. One of the considerable virtues of this group of players was that they could always be relied upon to play in tune and to play with musicianship. The competition was not so strong as it is today as many of the alternative groups simply could not deliver accuracy in tuning (or even worse, the notes). This was rarely commented upon in review magazines at the time, a source of complete bemusement for me, but as one who was expected to play in tune I found listening to string chamber music almost beyond bearing for much of the time - except for this group.
Unusually the liner note deserves a mention ahead of the music: the fine pianist Jeremy Denk, half of this regular duo, manages to encapsulate the elusiveness of French romantic music with such insight in a few sharp sentences, his words almost shape the way we listen to this superbly played disc. Saint-Saëns' wistful and emotional Sonata No 1 and Ravel's bluesy, ironic sonata have a whipped, airy quality. Joshua Bell plays with fire and finesse, with Denk a powerful ally. Franck's dark-light violin sonata, mysterious, ardent and far more than the sum of its parts when played as majestically as here, forms the centrepiece of this seriously beguiling disc.