Recorded September 2002 at Propstei St. Gerold, Austria
Sonata No.1 in G minor for Joseph Szigeti
Sonata No.2 in A minor for Jacques Thibaud
Sonata No.3 in D minor "Ballade" for George Enescu
Sonata No.4 in E minor for Fritz Kreisler
Sonata No.5 in G major for Mathieu Crickboom
Sonata No.6 in E major for Manuel Quiroga
Composed in 1923-1924
Eugene Ysaye's six solo violin sonatas were composed at the height of the violinist/composer's technical and expressive powers, and seem an amalgamation of Bach's counterpoint and Paganini's virtuosity. Yet they are imbued with a puzzling tone of reference and reflexivity that is peculiar, unsentimental, and almost modern in flavor. That these sonatas appear in ECM's New Series is a bit surprising, for outwardly they resemble the standard violin repertoire and are far from being the avant-garde fare expected from this cutting-edge label. Thomas Zehetmair's recording of Heinz Holliger's Ysaye-inspired Violin Concerto may have provided the impetus to record this set as a follow-up, and ECM may have been persuaded that Ysaye's sonatas are odd enough to appeal to the label's loyal fans. Whatever the reason, these pieces are cast in a new light as works ahead of their time. The modernist outlook seems strongest in Ysaye's ironic quotations (Sonata No. 2 in A minor), ambiguous tonality (Sonata No. 3 in D minor), and eerie tone production (Sonata No. 5 in G major), and Zehetmair communicates a sense of isolation and dark meditation that makes these pieces more disturbing and daring than Ysaye may have intended. ECM's resonant recording is ideal, for it minimizes grittiness and enhances Zehetmair's tone.
All Music Guide
Thomas Zehetmair's account of Ysaye's third sonata, presented as a "preface" to Heinz Holliger's recently released Violin Concerto, a work itself inspired by Ysaye, already gave evidence of this outstanding musician's affinity for the work of the great violinist-composer. Now comes a recording of all six sonatas, which ranks amongst the most exceptional recordings of this demanding repertoire. The Ysaye sonatas belong, with Bach's sonatas and partitas and Paganini's caprices, to the masterworks of music for unaccompanied violin, and offer a comparable challenge to the interpreter.
Challenges are a way of life for Zehetmair, currently covering a great many bases with skill and verve and commitment. This is the player of whom conductor Simon Rattle has said, "He is maybe the only violinist today able to encompass every style of playing. He is a true child of period style, Romantic temperament and contemporary taste." One of the earliest modern violinists to take an interest in period performance, he worked with Nikolaus Harnoncourt and Concentus Musicus more than two decades ago, before the boom period for 'historical performance practise'. Simultaneously, he has always been a passionate advocate of contemporary musical expression.
In the liner notes to the current release, Paul Griffiths writes: "Like Ysaye a century before, Thomas Zehetmair established himself as a musician with a personal vision and an inquiring mind, a player of passion and accuracy, an inspiring quartet leader, a conductor who sparks musical excitement even when he is not simultaneously performing as concerto soloist, and a friend of composers (in his case including Holliger and Kurtag). All of this is here, at the point of the bow. He burns himself into the music and disappears".
In the 2003/4 season, the Austrian violinist received a veritable landslide of classical music awards - the Edison Award, the Gramophone Award, the Prix Caecilia, Diapason d'Or de L'Annee and more - for his quartet's ECM recording of Robert Schumann's 1st and 3rd string quartets. Gramophone editor James Jolly wrote of "performances crackling with excitement", a sentiment echoed in magazines and newspapers from the Nouvel Observateur to The Strad. This is a quality characteristic of Zehetmair's work through the genres and in diverse roles, there is an edge and intensity to his delivery. He is engaged in "vigorous music-making", as the New York Times has noted, and steers clear of any formulaic approach to performance. To America's Fanfare magazine he explained that "individuality requires more responsibility to what the composers have written. And it can be acquired by developing a lot of possibilities for expression. It's not enough to have one distinctive sound. You have to have a lot of different sounds, different vibratos, different ways of making a crescendo … In the end, though, individuality speaks through the soul and the heart."
As the Zehetmair Quartet, founded in 1994, celebrates its tenth birthday, its leader is also actively engaged on other fronts. His reputation as a conductor, already growing through his work with the Camerata Bern (documented on ECM's "Verklarte Nacht" recording of Schonberg, Bartok and Veress), and guest appearances with leading orchestras, received increased attention with his appointment as Music Director of England's Northern Sinfonia.
Meanwhile, a non-stop touring schedule takes him, over the next three months, to Finland, Scotland, the USA, Belgium, France, Sweden, Japan and Italy working variously with the Zehetmair Quartet, Northern Sinfonia, Kremerata Baltica, the London Philharmonic Orchestra, the Cleveland Symphony Orchestra, Orchestra National de Lyon, the Malmo Symphony Orcherstra, the NHK Symphony Orchestra Tokyo, the New Japan Philharmonic, Deutsches Symphonie Orchester, the SWR Orchester Freiburg, and more, with conductors including Heinz Holliger, Kent Nagano, Michael Gielen, Vladimir Jurowsky… Details can be found at www.ecmrecords.com
========= from the cover ==========
This is a special occasion. The violin, which is used to hearing from other instruments below the middle-register G that is its fixed lower boundary, is by itself. The violinist, normally a partner or a star in collectivities, is alone.
But wait. To see this as unusual is to look at the case from our viewpoint, as listeners. For the violinist, solitariness is the common condition. The violinist spends a lot of time alone, practicing. The violinist, as a virtuoso, must also be a recluse.
Perhaps it follows that music for violin alone is most likely to come from composers sharing that experience - fellow violinists - who will put into their music memories of the practice room. This will be music rooted in exercises: flickering arpeggios and scale fragments, quick changes of bowing, testings of different colours, challenges to phrasing and agility. It will be music where virtuosity is spurred not so much by an audience as by the instrument - its technical possibilities, its history, its whole culture - and by the violinist's mechanisms of self-proving.
Music that conveys this texture of study and yet finds space for other ears - listeners' - is rare. The masterpieces here have their own loneliness: before Ysaye they are limited to the three sonatas and three partitas of Bach and the twenty-four caprices by Paganini. These works are on Ysaye's mind as he writes his six sonatas at his home in the Belgian coastal resort of Het Zoute in 1923/24. They are under the fingers of his mind. He is alone but not alone. There are ghosts in the room.
At this point, in his mid-sixties, he can survey a passionate affair with the violin that started when he was four. His father, a violinist and theatre conductor in Liege, had been his first teacher. Later he had studied with Wieniawski in Brussels and Vieuxtemps in Paris. By his mid-twenties he was acknowledged the outstanding virtuoso of his generation, with an unusual (for a virtuoso at that time) insistence on music of substance. His programmes were built from sonatas; he founded a quartet (1886); and he made his sensational U.S. debut (1893) in the Beethoven concerto. Composers loved him. Works had come from his fellow Belgian Franck (the sonata as a wedding present), from Chausson (the Poeme, the Concert),from Debussy (a quartet). He himself had written eight concertos, besides much else for his instrument. More present as he writes than all these personal memories, though, are those guiding and goading spirits, Bach and Paganini. So too for the violinist who retraces these supremely arduous, various and abundant journeys.
Playing Ysaye, the violinist will be revisiting his own memories and making his own discoveries. He too is continuing, through this hour or so, a path going back decades, to when he was a boy studying with his father. Born in Salzburg in 1961, he was trained in the Mozarteum and in master classes with Max Rostal and Nathan Milstein. In 1979 he made his debut, at the Musikverein in Vienna, and published his first recording. Like Ysaye a century before, he established himself as a musician with a personal vision and an inquiring mind, a player of passion and accuracy, an inspiring quartet leader, a conductor who sparks musical excitement even when he is not simultaneously performing as concerto soloist, and a friend of composers (in his case including Holliger and Kurtag). All of this is here, at the point of the bow. He burns himself into the music and disappears.
The first piece is a shadow sonata after Bach's first, in the same key of G minor (but turning to the relative major, B flat, for the tearoomtinted third movement) and with something like the same slow-fast-slow-fast plan, where a fugato is in second place (only Ysaye's is steadier in speed). Startling at this time of back-to-Bach neoclassicism - the time of Stravinsky's Concerto for piano and winds and Schoenberg's Piano Suite - is the lack of contention and anxiety. Bach is not being rediscovered. Bach was always here.
For the modern player this presence of Bach adds to all the work's other difficulties a virtuosity in time travel, since generally now Bach is considered to be decisively elsewhere, retrievable only by means of historically sanctioned approaches. How could Ysaye reach him without a Baroque bow? And how is the musician now to reach both him and Ysaye, understand Ysaye's adoption of Bachian ornaments? What style of performance could be suitable for both the 1920s and the 1720s?
The violinist has to cultivate his own aloneness, shut out (or digest) all the advice and warnings in order to pursue his dialogue with the text, performing not as if in the twentieth century, the eighteenth or the twenty-first but in that never-now where music takes place. Hear him. Right at the beginning the four-note chords and the motivic insistence (on the rising minor second especially) place us not so much with Bach or Ysaye as with weight and the struggle for the next step. Towards the close of this movement the shadow sonata includes its own shadow in a passage played sul ponticello, near the bridge. And then there are the endings, the points achieved: a chime of distant light; a wild high minor tenth, like a scream; the same interval softened and put into the major; the inevitable and decisive fifth.
In the second sonata (originally fourth: the composer swapped these two pieces around before publishing the set) Bach is not shadowed but emphatically present. Ysaye's "Obsession" is with music that is itself obsessive,the prelude from Bach's E major partita, phrases from which are answered, diverted, echoed and developed in an A minor context. But the music is obsessed also with the Dies irae melody, which appears in all four movements."Malinconia", the E minor (or Phrygian) slow movement played with a mute, slips easily at the end from a gentle folksong atmosphere into the chant theme. The "Danse des Ombres" (Dance of the Shades), in G, converts the plainsong first into a pizzicato sarabande and then, in six variations, into further avatars- another folksong, a musette, a two-part invention in the minor, and so on - before ending with the sarabande again, now bowed. Finally, "Les Furies" restores the force and temper of the first movement, and eventually the A minor tonality.
In another composer the extremes of rage in this sonata might seem directed at the great predecessor who is being quoted - or at his absence. Ysaye, however, is with Bach. The quotations are gradually integrated, and meaningful here in the way they were in the Bach partita. Bach, folk music, gypsy fiddling - all are near at hand. The violinist is alone, certainly, but at the same time everywhere in the world of the violin.
The third sonata is a single movement, whose title,"Ballade", suitably suggests a Chopin-like or Brahmsian combination of virtuosity and narrative thrust. Accordingly the main body of the movement, in D minor, is a chain of extensions from an assertive theme in proud dotted rhythm. Such passionate music could not just start up out of nowhere; it has to be preceded by an introduction (a gearing-up largely in double stops) and what one might call a preintroduction,"in modo di recitativo", slow and featuring a drift of chromatic melody.
With the fourth sonata Ysaye returns closer to the Bach model - explicitly to the model of the partitas. As in both the B minor partita and the D minor, the opening movement is an allemande - at least ostensibly, for this one switches from the quadruple time characteristic of the Bachian allemande to triple after its introduction. Jumping overthe customary courante, Ysaye arrives at another slow dance, the sarabande, for his second movement, authentically couched in triple time and sporting a concealed ostinato: a descending scale fragment A-G-F-E recurring every bar. The finale, a perpetuum mobile, brings back the allemande for its middle section, being otherwise somewhat gigue-like. Recalling that this sonata was originally the second, one wonders if the composer's initial plan was for an alternation between sonatas and partitas, as in the Bach collection. All three movements are in E minor, the finale moving into the major as it catches sight of its end.
Different again, the fifth sonata, in G major, is an essay in the picturesque. The first movement, "L'Aurore" (The Dawn), achieves an impression of sunrise in its opening two slow phrases, lifting from the open fifth at the bottom of the instrument's range, G-D. Following this, the image is created again much more expansively. The pure diatonic ascent of the initial segment now, on repetition, falls to a harsh dissonance, and this idea - D-E-B-F, later widened to D-G-E-Bflat - is developed, rising in register and regaining harmonic clarity to end with dazzling arpeggios.The same idea is then the seed for a"Danse rustique",the motif appearing in all the movement's several phases.
Ysaye, perhaps imagining performances of the sonatas as a programme, made sure the last would be a fit finale. At one point entitled "Fantaisie", it might be described as a cadenza with habanera, in E major, the Hispanic tone suiting the dedicatee, Manuel Quiroga, the greatest Spanish violinist of his time. Each of the other sonatas is similarly dedicated to a younger colleague, whose personality and repertory are reflected in the music: the first to Joseph Szigeti, whose performances of the Bach solo pieces are said to have moved Ysaye to begin this set, and the middle four in order to Jacques Thibaud, George Enescu, Fritz Kreisler and Mathieu Crickboom (the composer's compatriot, pupil and quartet partner).
The master of them all, reflecting on a life with the violin that is almost over, conveys what he has learned. There is sagacity here, and rich experience. But what he writes is - in each note, each ornament, each double stop, each feathery flurry of sixths - a prompt for action.
The violinist looks at the script. He has his own ghosts in the room with him, and they surely include Ysaye alongside Bach and Paganini. He lifts his bow. He acts.
- Paul Griffiths