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Eugène YSAŸE (1858-1931)
Six Sonatas for Solo Violin Op.27 [75:00]
Stefan Tarara (violin)
rec. Immanuelskirche, Wupperthal, Germany, 2017
Reviewed in SACD stereo

Pause for a moment and consider how few of the violinists whose careers were defined or consolidated during the LP era have recorded this set of Ysa˙e six solo sonatas. Taking the admittedly fallible source of Wikipedia as a guide; pre the CD era (around 1985 say) only Ruggiero Ricci, Gidon Kremer and Charles Castleman are listed. Oscar Shumsky - much more about his recording to follow - made a set for Nimbus in 1982 - which was an early release on CD and as such almost counts as part of the CD era. Certainly Shumsky's recording dates from his late and glorious Indian Summer. So this means that as far as I can tell the majority of the great players of the 20th century from Menuhin to Szeryng to Perlman and Zuckerman or Chung to Suk or Mullova and many many others are not represented in this repertoire on disc. Amongst the post-CD era players I was slightly surprised to see that James Ehnes or Maxim Vengerov have not recorded a complete set as yet.

But post 1985 the Wiki article lists nearly 40 recordings (not including this current one) by a range of performers including the very famous - Kavakos/Graffin/Zimmermann/Yang and others less instantly familiar. So why might this be? Certainly not a question of technical ability - the catalogue is certainly poorer for not having versions from any or all of the above. So I can only assume that in the era of copious recordings of the 'great' concerti and the big repertoire in their packed schedules, these players did not need to invest the time and effort into recording these ferociously hard works in what was effectively peripheral repertoire. Of course the total duration of the 6 sonatas at 75 minutes is perfect for a single CD and would be awkward on LP.

So here we have a new set from a player previously unknown to me - the 31 year old Stefan Tarara. He is a multiple prize winner at international competitions going back over a decade, so he certainly can play. But just how does he measure up against the best of the best?

The simple answer is that this is quite extraordinary playing of the very highest level indeed. Had all of the great players listed above recorded these works, then I have no doubt this new disc would still be up there with them all. In various reviews of new violin recordings I frequently make the point that the level of technical address of soloists these days has never been higher. But even accepting that the bar of excellence is only moving one way - up - this is playing of astounding brilliance. Contemporary violin playing is, in rather simplistic terms, about evenness. Players seek to remove any 'bumps' from the tone production. In bowing terms this relates to a seamless control of the bow, so that changes in direction of the bow stroke are inaudible unless the music requires a detached stroke. When more than one note is being played at a time the balance is the choice of the players - think fugal lines in the Bach Sonatas and Partitas. Where the player is on the bow - heel or tip - does not dictate the weight or volume of tone produced. And that's 'just' the right arm. The left hand needs to be able to shift soundlessly, double stopped chords need to be perfectly in tune and again of equal weight within the chord. So it goes on. Of course, these qualities as they are perceived by the 'modern' player are often the antithesis of the goals of the historically informed field. To them - and not without just cause - this evenness limits players by removing a whole area of potential expressiveness, whether through the ubiquitous use of vibrato or the removal of discreet phrasing 'bulges' within a legato bow stroke.

Putting aside the relative merits of either interest group - Tarara is a complete master of the modern school of playing. Simply put, in any repertoire, let alone these specific works, I cannot think of many if any performances, which so completely and effectively address the near-overwhelming demands of virtuoso music of this complexity. Alongside the aforementioned Bach and the Paganini 24 Caprices these Ysa˙e sonatas are the third great cornerstone of the solo virtuoso repertoire. I must admit that I have not heard all or indeed many of the versions listed by Wiki, for the simple reason that my first and abiding love in this music is the recording by Oscar Shumsky. We are fortunate that late in his career Shumsky did record a substantial amount of his core repertoire on disc and radio. He was a truly remarkable musician and violinist, but for me his disc of the Ysa˙e sonatas remains one of his finest achievements. Musically he gives attention-grabbing and searching interpretations that surmount just the technical demands of the music to reveal the substantial quality of the works beneath. Back in the early 80's Nimbus were still using minimal editing and recording techniques - single ambisonic microphone arrays - with the goal of making recordings that emulated a concert-type performance as much as possible. While that is/was an admirable ideal, it put considerable pressure on the performers to both be supremely accurate in their playing as well as giving a performance filled with the spontaneity and sense of discovery only a concert can bring. Listening to Shumsky again, as I have many times over the years, I find he achieves this all but impossible balance - and even the listening ear soon adjusts to the placement of him rather far back in a slightly swimmy acoustic. Shumsky is quite brilliant at taking you the listener on an emotional as well as musical journey, which makes for wonderful listening experience.

High praise indeed to say that Tarara hits those same musical as well as technical heights. Indeed, if one is listening with just a forensic ear, I would have to say he achieves even more in terms of brilliance of execution than Shumsky. If I really really had to choose just one version I would probably stick with Shumsky - but that might well be first love speaking rather than a wholly objective assessment.

If you have never heard these works - and have anything except an allergic reaction to solo virtuoso violin repertoire - then I urge you to seek out this disc. The origin of these works is relatively well known. Ysa˙e was one of the great violin virtuosos and pedagogues of the late 19th & early 20th Centuries. His teaching and playing example influenced generations of players - in effect right down to the modern day. Apparently - this still seems all but impossible to conceive - he sketched the entire set of sonatas - as mentioned well over an hour of music - in just 24 hours in July 1923. The neat conceit behind the works was that they combined state-of-the-art violin techniques with musical portraits of six of his closest and most famous violin colleagues. Another layer of influence is added by Ysa˙e's love and respect for the Bach solo works, so time and again through the set there are respectful homages to the earlier master's work. Sometimes they are literal quotes - try the wonderful opening to Sonata No.2 (à Jacques Thibaud), titled Obsession, which opens with a petulant fragment of the Preludio from the Bach E major Partita. Elsewhere, as in Sonata No.4 (à Fritz Kreisler) Ysa˙e writes movements titled Allemanda and Sarabande with their creative debt clear.

Once I got over my admiration for Tarara's technical prowess, it becomes very evident very quickly that his mastery extends to the plotting of the musical arcs of these works, too. His expressive range is superb. He exploits the dynamics and variety of tone Ysa˙e demands wonderfully. This kind of music is so much more impressive when a player follows the score like this. Try Tarara's poised and hushed con sordino opening to the second movement of Sonata No.2 subtitled 'Malinconia' - muted in every sense not just the literal one - which allows the wildness of the closing movement 'Les furies' to impact even more than usual. In the same Sonata Ysa˙e is yet another to exploit the ancient Dies Irae chant to express something rather dark and menacing - a quality Tarara is able explore by pushing the superb Stradivarius he plays on to its physical limit. The Sonata No.3 (à Georges Enescu) and No.6 (à Manuel Quiroga) are both single movement compositions of astonishing musical density and compaction. They both sit either side of the eight minute mark yet the demands they make of the player are as hard as just about anything in the repertoire. As calling cards, it is not surprising that players, who have not recorded the complete cycle, have featured one or other of these two in recital recordings - Oistrakh back in 1947 and Rabin in 1956 with No.3 and Rosand and Ion Voicu No.6.

Now I am beginning to be able to listen to Tarara without only hearing the sheer skill of his playing, I am beginning to appreciate with greater respect and understanding his innate understanding of the architecture of these works. He does not just leap from one act of violinistic wizardry to another - he is a sure and certain guide through these works, pacing them with unerring skill so that the listener arrives at the closing bars not punched out by the unrelenting demands of the music, but with a sure and certain sense of completion in the underlying narrative too. To my ear, this was Shumsky's special skill. For sure back in the early 80's the actual pieces and their prodigious demands were far less familiar than now, so there was a distinct "wow" factor at work, but returning to that recording now, it is the musicianship that endures. Splitting the finest of hairs, I do wonder if Shumsky just shades Tarara with the intensity of his playing - but the counter argument could be that this is a function of Tarara being less audibly challenged technically - Shumsky's slightly more rugged approach somehow injecting more humanity into his performances. But that said, and having described the "ideal" of evenness earlier, no listener should think that for an instant all that Tarara seeks is some kind of unrelieved landscape of flowing golden tone and ladled on vibrato. Of particular impact is the glorious range of sounds he draws from the 1721 Stradivari he plays here. The booklet includes a couple of lovely pictures of the violin formerly played by the great Augustin Dumay, René Capuçon - until 2008 - and apparently Kreisler himself. Specialists will be interested to know Tarara uses a Sartory bow, too. Tarara's website says that his current instrument is a Nicolò Gagliano of Naples, thanks to the generous support of the German Music Foundation (Deutsche Stiftung Musikleben), so presumably the Stradivari was provided for this recording alone.

There is not a huge amount of point going through the six works, detailing individual movements. As should now be clear this really is playing and music making of the very finest quality. The Ars production team have graced the disc with a SA-CD multi-channel 5.0 recording of a very high quality, too. I was able to listen to the SA-CD stereo layer - the German church venue adds a pleasing richness and warmth to the sound. It does need to be said that the choice has been made to place the microphones quite close and as a consequence they do pick up a substantial amount of breathing and sniffing from Tarara. My ear soon adjusted to this and in any case I find it a small price to play for playing at this level. However, I suspect some would find it distracting. The booklet is well presented and attractive in English and German only with good notes about each of the Sonatas as well as pictures of the artist - quite why he his A&R team took a picture of him on a beach with a violin and arms outstretched is for others to work out. I do have to stress that I am sure that many of the other available versions of this wonderful music will be very fine indeed - my enduring satisfaction with the Shumsky set has meant that I have not been that inclined to seek alternatives. Just by matching Shumsky's achievement, Tarara's disc demands serious consideration - as a demonstration of the expressive and technical possibilities of the violin in its own right it is one of the finest discs of violin playing bar none I have heard in some time. An early disc of the year contender.

Nick Barnard

Previous review: Dave Billinge

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