Whatever else you might think about the compact disc, it has, in a way that perhaps no previous recording format possibly could have, allowed light to fall on every repertoire nook and musical cranny imaginable. Evidence of such appears with increasing regularity. This month's Exhibit A arrives courtesy of the young French violinist, Philippe Graffin, who has realised a long-cherished ambition to record, as the title of his fourth disc for Hyperion matter-of-factly implies, 'Rare French Works' for violin and orchestra.
While the composer names will be familiar Fauré, - Saint-Saëns, Canteloube and Lalo, with Ernest Guiraud perhaps the exception to the rule - the works themselves will, for many, be entirelv new.
'Each of them is a well-loved composer,' Graffin points out, 'but all these works show a side of them that, somehow, people don't seem to know. I've known about them for a long time but because labels usually want to concentrate on recording one-composer discs, it has been a problem getting anyone to agree to my recording them.'
Until now, that is. Graffin, of course, has already demonstrated his poetic prowess with the music of his homeland on his three previous recordings for Hyperion, the first a well-received disc of works for violin and piano by Ysaÿe (7/97), the other two focusing on Saint-Saëns, including a very well-received coupling of the three violin concertos (10/99).
It's the early Fauré D minor Violin Concerto that Graffin has chosen to open the new disc. 'There was no score so we had to make one, which is surprising for a work that could take its place in concert programmes without any trouble at all - audiences wouldn't be frightened of the name and they'd love the piece. But it's amazing how hard it is to play rare pieces; to record them is easier!'
Graffin's partners in the studio for his excursions into the byways of the French repertoire were the Belfast-based Ulster Orchestra and their recently appointed principal conductor, Thierry Fischer.
'It's a new era for the Ulster Orchestra and they played like a dream,'a gratified Graffin recalls. 'There's an intimacy and sensitivity to tone and colour in their playing that suits the material. We recorded the pieces on the platform of Belfast's Ulster Hall very much like a chamber session with me in the middle of the orchestra, and I think that benefits the music.'
What also benefited the recording, albeit curiously, was the participants' lack of familiarity with the repertoire. 'I had made an earlier radio recording of Lalo's Fantaisie Norvégienne but since we were all discovering these pieces together there had to be some compromise. I came to rehearsal with some ideas but knowing that there were many possibilities to be explored. After all, how do you play a piece like Guiraud's Caprice which is very tuneful and has lots of charm but is so very conservative? Or the Lalo Fantaisie, which has to be the clumsiest writing for violin of anything he wrote?'
Which is not, Graffin is quick to add, to imply that either work doesn't merit its place on the disc. 'All the pieces on the disc could have been popular,' he adds, 'but fate had other ideas for them. I suspect that Lalo simply wasn't comfortable with the Norwegian folk music elements in the work. Today, when we are more used to such things, it doesn't seem as exotic as it must have at the time. And the Guiraud! If Heifetz had recorded it, it would be in the main repertoire today - it really is that good.'
All of which musical detective work begs the question: can we expect in the future a second volume of forgotten French music? Perhaps, although Graffin is, for now at least, keeping mum about such a possibility. 'There are some concerto possibilities, but more successful and intriguing forms are the poems and ballades which allow more fantasy than the concertos do. But will I do some more? Maybe.'
More immediately on the horizon, however, is his recording of Chopin violin and piano transcriptions by Ysaÿe and Saint-Saëns, 'and some humorous pieces by the young Saint-Saëns' with long-time musical partner, Pascal Devoyon, scheduled for release by Hyperion in July.
'I do genuinely love French music and to have been able to play the works on this disc has been an incredible pleasure, but,' adds Graffin with some feeling, 'I do also like to play other things!'