Michèle Auclair was born on 16 November 1924 into a family with sense for arts and culture. At the age of six she heard Beethoven’s Kreutzer sonata and was moved to ask her parents for a violin. Her first teacher was Line Talluel and later, she studied at the Paris Conservatoire with Jules Boucherit and Jacques Thibaud, and with Russian Boris Kamensky. They all influenced the development of her talent and explains her style of playing with a beautiful technique and above all with a natural passion. While still at the Conservatoire she was giving concerts with Tasso Janopoulo or with fellow students like Janine Andrade.
In 1943 she won the “Prix Jacques Thibaud” and in 1945 she was a laureate of the “Concours International de Genève”, the Geneva International Competition. Thus began the career that would take her across Europe and the Americas.
Her first recording after when she won the first prize on “Long-Thibaud” was Haydn’s Violin Concerto No.1 in D major, Hob. 7a Prize with Orchestre de la Societe des Concerts du Conservatoire under Jacques Thibaud on 7 October 1943 in Paris. This was also the first recording of this Haydn concerto. She had breakfast with Thibaud prior to the recording session at Studio Albert. It was planned to rehears it first and then to record. After the rehearsal was finished, she asked Thibaud “Shall we start now with the recording”. Thibaud said: “No, the rehearsal was recorded and it’s just marvellous. We take it for the record!”
After the liberation of Paris in 1944, she played for soldiers at Allied camps across Europe with her dear friend Samson François, transported in British military transport aircrafts. In Paris on February 4, 1945, she performed Mozart’s Concerto in G Major K216 with Orchestre de la Société des Concerts du Conservatoire and conductor Charles Munch.
She came to the USA in 1949 to study with Theodore and Alice Pashkus in New York. Among their most famous pupils were Yehudi Menuhin, Ossy Renardy, Ivry Gitlis and Blanche Tarjus. Pashkus supervised a series on the Remington label for young violinists, which were produced by Don Gabor. It was in 1950 that she made her first recording for this label with Austrian Symphony Orchestra and conductor Kurt Wöss of Tchaikovsky’s Concerto Op. 35. She recorded the work with a 1732 Guarneri del Gesu violin, which had been the property of Adolf Brodzky. It was Brodzky who gave the first performance of the Tchaikovsky Concerto when the work received its world première in Vienna in 1881.
On January 9, 1951 she made her debut for the American audience with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. She played the Tchaikovsky Concerto Op. 35 conducted by Charles Munch. From 1956, she collaborated with the pianist Jacqueline Bonneau with their concert debut a year later. In 1962, she started another collaboration with the pianist Geneviève Joy. Since then she appeared with all the French orchestras of national importance and played with ever increasing acclaim in Switzerland, Belgium, Germany, Greece and throughout South America. Her first Berlin appearance took place on 13 April 1952 playing the Mendelssohn Concerto with the Berlin Philharmonic under Otto Matzerath.
Her recitals were usually played in collaboration with Jacqueline Robin-Bonneau with their concert debut in 1956. In 1962, she started another collaboration with the pianist Genevieve Joy (wife of the composer Henri Dutilleux).
After a severe accident she was forced to end a relatively short career as a soloist. In 1969 she became a violin teacher at the National Conservatory of Music in Paris, a post which she held until 1989, reaching their mandatory retirement age. She then commuted regularly from Paris to teach at the New England Conservatory in Boston, Massachusetts between 1989 and 2002. Her pupil Irina Muresanu at the New England Conservatory said: “She had the rare gift of seeing in her students their own qualities and then bringing them out. She could customize her advice, depending on what she saw in somebody’s personality, musical gifts, and technical abilities … and talking to her was like reading a wonderful history book; she had so many insights into music and into the great musicians she had known.”
She made recordings which were released on Remington, Masque and Concerteum. She also recorded for Philips. Some of these recordings were re-released by Philips on their Fontana and Classette labels. Later she recorded in France for Erato and Discophiles Français.
She had been married to composer Antoine Duhamel and later to critic Armand Panigel.
Michèle Auclair died 10 June 2005 in her sleep at her home in Paris. She was 80.
© Michael Waiblinger 2014
In the annals of performing history, it is amazing to learn that Michèle Auclair’s introduction to the violin came via listening to a performance of Beethoven’s Kreutzer Sonata at the age of only six. This led her to ask her parents for lessons. Born in Paris in 1924, she hailed from a very cultured family. Her father and grandfather were not only amateur musicians but painters also. It was in this artistically nurturing environment that her prodigious talent was cultivated.
Line Talluel was her first teacher who, incidentally, taught that other great French violinist Ginette Neveu. She then went on to study at the Paris Conservatoire with Jules Boucherit, Jacques Thibaud and Boris Kamensky. In 1943 she was prize winner of the first Marguerite Long – Jacques Thibaud Competition; Samson François, a later close friend, won the piano prize. As a prize-winner she was rewarded with the opportunity to record Haydn’s First Violin Concerto for Pathé Records, a France-based international record label, conducted by her teacher Jacques Thibaud. Then in 1946 she won first prize in the Geneva International Competition. This propelled her onto the world stage and an international career beckoned.
After the war, Auclair travelled to the USA for further studies with Theodore and Alice Pashkus in New York. Theodore got her to do some recordings on the Remington label, produced by Don Gabor. In 1950 she made her first recording for Remington of the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto with the conductor Kurt Wöss. Others followed including the Bruch Concerto and some Kreisler arrangements. These recordings have been issued on CD in Japan on the elusive Green Door label. Like many Remingtons, the pressings can be less than ideal. For improved sound one needs to look to her later Philips recordings and those she made for Erato.
Sadly, in the mid-sixties, Auclair was involved in an automobile accident which put paid to her career as a soloist. She devoted the rest of her life to teaching and supporting young violinists both at the National Conservatory of Music in Paris (1969-1989), and at the New England Conservatory in Boston (1989-2002). She died in Paris on 10 June 2005, aged eighty.
With a relatively slender discography, this Meloclassic issue is highly appreciated: a first CD release of historical recordings, including works not taken into the studio by the violinist. Listening to those recordings and summing up her playing, I cannot but echo the sentiments of J.F. Indcox in High Fidelity in August 1954. He wrote of her Tchaikovsky Concerto recording: “Auclair gives a most striking performance, brimful of fire, if a trifle impetuous, which exposes a very solid and sure technique.”
The Ravel Sonata was never recorded by her commercially. It has been interesting comparing Johanna Martzy’s radio recording of 1965 on Coup d’Archet (COUP CD001) with this one. Both violinists were born in 1924. Martzy’s rendition from seven years later in 1965 is in brighter and more immediate sound. However, what came as a surprise was that Auclair’s Ravel is much more spontaneous with an innate sense of freedom and fantasy. Martzy sounds more self-conscious and the performance as a whole more calculated. Auclair, eschewing this strait-jacketed and hemmed-in approach, makes the blues movement more jazzy and improvisatory, yet without sounding mannered. She throws all caution to the wind in a performance of vitality and élan.
Watching some film of Auclair, I was struck by the strength and force of her right arm, bowing near to the bridge to obtain maximum power and sonority. This enables her to project a certain amount of tonal opulence especially in the Bartok Rhapsodie. She also imbues the Stravinsky Duo with ruggedness and grit. Employing a flexible vibrato, she projects these works with a multiplicity of tonal colour and allure.
The Telemann is beautifully realized, lyrical and expressive, the reading crowned with rich, warm tone and pure intonation.
I compared this live Schubert Fantasy with the violinist’s studio recording on Erato (WPCS-22084/5) from five years earlier, again with Geneviève Joy. I didn’t find the two performances poles apart. Indeed, they’re almost identical interpretively and in conception. The live airing does suffer some technical slips, one particularly noticeable at 3:53, but these in no way detract from a truly spontaneous reading which takes fire, inspired by the live event. What we hear is strongly argued with a heady mix of drama and expressive lyricism. Both Auclair, and her long-time accompanist Geneviève Joy, judge the ebb and flow of this multi-sectioned work with intelligence, maintaining structure and integrity throughout. They’ve clearly played it together many times and have a mutual understanding. Indeed all three pianists featured are sympathetic collaborators.
Sound quality throughout is more than acceptable for the vintage. Announcements in French are retained, which is advantageous in that we nostalgically experience the performances in the context in which they were first heard. Booklet notes provide a helpful biographical background – in English only. Whilst Michèle Auclair’s star did not shine as brightly as did that of Johanna Martzy, Erica Morini or Ginette Neveu in the violinistic firmament she is, nevertheless, a violinist who deserves a wider audience. This issue is well worth the investment – indeed a revelation.
© Stephen Greenbank