For many years Ysaÿe’s six solo violin sonatas languished in relative obscurity, known only to a few, but of late recordings of these wonderful works have kept coming. There are at least twenty versions listed to date.
Highly regarded, not only as a great violinist but as a consummate musician, Eugène Ysaÿe (1858-1931) was a major figure of the Franco-Belgian school of violin playing. Carl Flesch
, in his Memoires
, called him "the most outstanding and individual violinist I have ever heard in my life". Sketched in one day in 1923 and composed within the short space of a few weeks, in a burst of creative energy, the Sonatas are the great Belgian violinist’s tribute to J.S. Bach who established the genre with his six Sonatas and Partitas for solo violin. They were published a year later. Ysaÿe dedicated each of them to one of his younger violinist colleagues, whom he admired. Yet the resulting works do not end at a mere dedication; each reflects the individual musical personality and technical idiosyncrasies of the dedicatee.
Like being reacquainted with a long-lost friend after a lengthy time lapse, the more I listen to these masterpieces, and I have lived with them constantly for a week now, the more I realize that they are not just empty virtuosic showpieces but deeply musically satisfying works. Yet to tackle them the violinist requires a formidable virtuosity, fluency and imaginative flair. They showcase many aspects of violinistic technique including double stops, harmonics, pizzicato (left and right hand) and special effects such as sul ponticello
(on the bridge) bowing, which the composer asks for in the finale of the Second Sonata. I was amazed, perusing my own score after an absence of many years, to note the scrupulous detail the composer indicates on bowing, phrasing and dynamics; I even spotted a rubato indication at one point.
Karl Stobbe on Avie delivers very convincing performances, with great drama, energy and drive. With impressive virtuosity he is able to meet the formidable technical challenges that these works throw at the performer head-on. Intonation, an important factor with solo works of this kind where the violinist is exposed, is pristine. My only criticism of this recording is that Stobbe is too closely positioned to the microphone, rendering the violin sound gritty and with an edge to it. Many may dislike this ‘in your face’ approach.
Papavrami is recorded in warmer sound, with the violin placed at a more comfortable distance. Taking a more relaxed approach, I felt there was more spontaneity in his readings and more effective dynamic variance. Once again, technical flair is second to none, and intonation immaculate. There is no doubt that this violinist brings to these sonatas a wealth of imagination, and in the Third Sonata, the best known and the most frequently performed, he has a story to tell, negotiating the narrative with a wealth of insights. The Sixth Sonata, a technical tour de force
, is dispatched with fantasy and élan.
The Sonata in A minor for Two Violins is included on a second CD by Zig-Zag Territoires. It was composed in London in 1915, where the composer lived during World War I. It is dedicated to Queen Elizabeth of Belgium and is known as ‘Sonata to the Queen’. It was only premiered, with cuts, as late as the 1960s by Leonid Kogan and Elizavieta Gilels. This is the first complete recording. A large-scaled canvas, it embodies advanced harmony and hyper-chromaticism, veering towards Berg and Schoenberg. This is the first time I have heard this sonata, and I must admit that I am impressed. It shows a richness of compositional ideas. Papavrami has been extremely careful in choosing his partner, and the two violins sound similar, blending well, in a performance marked with a sense of shared purpose.
I thoroughly enjoyed both these releases. Each violinist brings his own originality, freshness and intelligence to the mix. My CD library holds my favourite versions of these works by Ruggiero Ricci, Oscar Shumsky and Gidon Kremer. I am happy to add these two modern versions to my collection. Booklet notes, in each instance, are well-written and informative, with interesting contributions from the individual players. Sound quality, though, is an issue for me, and I did prefer the warmer sound accorded to Papavrami. Some may want the Sonata for Two Violins, housed on a second CD in Tedi Papavrami’s recording, which does carry an extra cost implication; a small price to pay for such distinguished musicianship.
However, if I were faced with the choice of only taking one version to my desert island, I would have to opt for the Papavrami set.