“A book could be written on the significance of music in the work of Proust,” declared Samuel Beckett in 1931. Marcel Proust’s love of music was profoundly intellectual and deeply heartfelt; he wrote articles about his composer contemporaries, had string quartets performed in his bedroom, and made a mysterious violin sonata central to the narrative of his seven-volume magnum opus In Search of Lost Time.

Marcel Proust

It is to this world of Proust’s elite Parisian salons, hubs of late 19th-century French chamber music, that cello maestro Steven Isserlis and acclaimed Canadian pianist Connie Shih journey on this latest recording. This follows their lauded 2017 outing The Cello in Wartime (BIS), released during the period of WWI centenary commemorations and featuring works from the early 20th century, some of which are performed by Isserlis on a ‘trench cello’ constructed by soldiers from materials at hand and played in the battlegrounds of Ypres.

The works on Music from Proust’s Salons are from an earlier era (but not unrelated) and by composers with various connections to Proust. The program pillars are two sonatas presented in slightly unusual ways. The Cello Sonata No. 1 (Op. 32) of Camille Saint-Saëns is in three movements and dates from 1872. It was inspired by the death of his great-aunt Charlotte, an apparently formidable woman who, along with his mother, exerted a profound influence over the composer. On one occasion when he expressed anxiety about an impending performance, his mother responded: “You make me sick with your fears… you are nothing but a coward. I despise you… either you will play well, or I will renounce you as my child.” Little wonder the Romantics were prone to nervous emotional implosions.

Her dissatisfaction with the final movement of this sonata resulted in its reconfiguration; Isserlis and Shih here present the entire sonata with the ‘approved’ final movement, followed by the offending original (quite beautiful) Allegro quasi presto.

César Franck was a great favourite of Proust’s (the aforementioned bedroom performance was of his string quartet), and Proust referred to his towering Violin Sonata in A as “la sublime sonate”. Written in 1886 and dedicated to virtuoso violinist Eugène Ysaÿe, it is a more sombre, rumbling experience in this arrangement for cello by Jules Delsart, published in 1888 with Franck’s approval. Its restless turbulence is reputed to be at least in part the result of Franck’s passion for the extraordinary and considerably younger French/Irish singer, composer, librettist and costume designer Augusta Holmès (1847-1903), whose Récitatif et Chant from the cantata La Vision de la Reine (1895) is included in an arrangement by Isserlis. Other highlights include Reynaldo Hahn’s dreamy Variations chantantes sur un air ancien (1905) and two exquisite short works by Gabriel Fauré: a Romance, Op. 69 (1894) and an Élégie, Op. 24 (1880).

Isserlis is his usual beautifully languid self, and Shih a precise, fiery complement, their antiphonal phrases sparkling with joyous ease. The BIS recording, as usual, is magnificent: notes and intonations float in a vast spectrum of presence so rich it’s almost visible.

Listen on Apple Music

Title: Music from Proust’s Salons
Works: Music by Fauré, Saint-Saëns, Franck et al.
Performers: Steven Isserlis vc, Connie Shih p
Label: BIS BIS2522

Sign up to the Limelight newsletter