The power of music to evoke half-forgotten memories echoes down the years in Marcel Proust’s expansive novel À la recherche du temps perdu. A “little phrase” in a sonata by the fictional composer Vinteuil is said to have set off a multitude of connections, like a man who dreams “a thousand things and at once forgets them”.

Proust was a lover of music and his correspondence with the leading French composers of his day expresses his admiration for them in no uncertain terms. This was the elegant age of the Parisian salon, where the intellectual elite would gather to be entertained by performances of poetry, drama and music.

Cellist Steven Isserlis — accompanied with style by pianist Connie Shih — has brought together a collection of the kind of music that might have been heard. It is not a reconstruction of any particular occasion, more a fictional event in its own right, drawing on the composers of Proust’s time that he was known to enjoy the most.

The main pillars of the programme are a pair of high-romantic French cello sonatas. The Cello Sonata No 1 by Saint-Saëns, by all accounts a prickly guest at salon evenings, is stormy, not calming after-dinner entertainment. In Isserlis's hands Franck’s well-known Violin Sonata, performed in the transcription for cello, is as much about inner calm as frenetic passion. The rest of the programme includes a delectable array of French salon items by Hahn (Proust’s sometime lover), his favourite Fauré, and more.


‘Music from Proust’s Salons’ is released by BIS