No 2: Allegretto: Con grazia [2'01]
No 4: Allegro risoluto [2'50]
As virtuoso violinist, the Moravian Heinrich Wilhelm Ernst was a legend in his own lifetime. He died before the era of sound-recording, and his personal wizardry and magnetism can only dimly be recaptured in the written testimony of his contemporaries. Yet to a significant extent it lives on in his own works for his instrument: for he was a composer who significantly extended the boundaries and meaning of bravura technique. Unfortunately Ernst has long been the preserve of violin specialists only—unjustly, considering his quality as a musical thinker. As a composer Ernst combined the reckless virtuosity of Paganini and Liszt with a sure instinct for musical substance, putting transcendent violin technique at the service of something more than mere display.
The brilliant Russian violinist Ilya Gringolts, acclaimed for his technical brilliance and inspired interpretations of a range of repertoire, is the ideal performer of these dazzlingly difficult works. He has made many distinguished recordings for Deutsche Grammophon and BIS; this is his first recording for Hyperion. He is partnered by fellow former BBC New Generation Artist Ashley Wass.
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As a virtuoso violinist, the Moravian Heinrich Wilhelm Ernst (1814–1865) was a legend in his own lifetime. He died before the era of sound-recording, and his personal wizardry and magnetism can only dimly be recaptured in the written testimony of his contemporaries. Yet to a surprising extent it lives on in his own works for his instrument: for he was a composer who significantly extended the boundaries and meaning of bravura technique. Unfortunately Ernst has long been the preserve of violin specialists only—unjustly, considering his quality as a musical thinker.
Born in Brno, Ernst swiftly showed signs of talent, first performing in public at the age of nine. He entered the Vienna Conservatory, where he studied the violin with Joseph Böhm and Joseph Mayseder, and composition with Ignaz Xaver von Seyfried. He was fourteen when, in Vienna in 1828, he first heard Paganini play—an experience which transformed his life. He followed the great Italian virtuoso on his travels, absorbing the special features of his technique through close observation, and eventually impressed him by being able to play, by ear, as-yet unpublished works that Paganini was featuring in his programmes. By that time Ernst had started making concert tours on his own account. At the age of eighteen he had settled in Paris, where he made his official concert debut in 1831 and became friendly with the composer-pianist Stephen Heller, who collaborated with him on a set of jointly composed pieces, the Pensées fugitives for violin and piano. Ernst left Paris in 1838. The previous year, aged twenty-three, he had finally appeared in concert with Paganini, in Marseilles; critical opinion agreed that Paganini surmounted the greater range of technical difficulties, but Ernst played with greater feeling.
For the next twenty years Ernst lived the life of an itinerant virtuoso, building a reputation as one of Europe’s greatest violinists, and befriending Berlioz (who conducted him in Harold in Italy in Brussels), Mendelssohn and Joseph Joachim. He travelled as far afield as Moscow, Riga, and eventually London, which he first visited in 1843. It was in London that he settled in 1855 and he continued to perform there regularly until the early 1860s. In Joachim’s opinion, Ernst was the greatest violinist he had ever heard, one who towered above all others. In 1859 Ernst and Joachim were the violinists of what must have been one of the greatest string quartets in history, the Beethoven Quartet Society, along with Henryk Wieniawski (who played as the violist) and the cellist Alfredo Piatti. The last decade of Ernst’s life was a period overshadowed by severe and incurable neuralgia, and in his last years he retired to Nice. There he produced his final compositions and died on 9 October 1865, just fifty-one years old.
As a composer Ernst was a fascinating and characteristic figure of the Romantic era, writing music mainly for his own use. He combined the reckless virtuosity of Paganini and Liszt with a sure instinct for musical substance, putting transcendent violin technique at the service of something more than mere display. All his works involve the violin, from his one full-scale concerto (the Concerto pathétique, Op 23) down to small morceaux. Several of his works (principally for violin and orchestra with alternative accompaniments for piano, plus a few original pieces for violin and piano and for unaccompanied violin) are sets of bravura variations on popular tunes and operatic airs. But he was also a master of transcription, as shown by his amazing version of Schubert’s Erlkönig for violin solo (1854); and his last work, the Sechs mehrstimmige Etüden (‘Six Polyphonic Studies’), displays an almost Bachian concern with contrapuntal effect on a single instrument.
Apart from these unaccompanied works, most of Ernst’s pieces were originally conceived with orchestral accompaniment, but were more often performed, as on this disc, in equally effective versions with piano. Despite his output of works of dazzling technical bravura Ernst was, in fact, most celebrated in his time for his slow and soulful pieces, of which the Elegy, Op 10, is a fine example. This haunting work was published in Vienna in 1840, having been written perhaps a few years earlier, with the title in full Élégie sur la mort d’un objet chéri. Described as Chant pour violon, it enjoyed great popularity in Ernst’s lifetime and was widely played. At least part of this success must have been due to the fact that, after the plangent, recitative-like introduction, in this piece Ernst makes few unreasonable demands on the player’s technique, aiming instead for unpretentious lyricism. Only in the final section does he call for double-stopping to intensify the emotion as the music builds to its climax, and the effect is entirely expressive.
Closely contemporary with the Élégie, but of very different temper, is Ernst’s Othello Fantasy, Op 11, or to give it its full title the Fantaisie brillante sur la Marche et la Romance d’Otello de G. Rossini. Published in 1839 as a work for violin and orchestra, this brilliant essay in operatic reminiscence quarries its thematic material from Rossini’s opera (first performed in Naples in 1816), taking melodies from the first act and also the celebrated Romance (the ‘Willow Song’) sung by Desdemona in the final act. Though the result is a feast of violinistic pyrotechnics, one of the pleasures of the work is the subtle, almost organic way in which Ernst links its various sections and themes. After an Andante non troppo instrumental introduction in which we hear the beginning of Rossini’s Act I March, the violin enters in lyrical vein but with increasing brilliance, working up through double-stopping, chromatic scales in thirds, and a passage in octaves, to a short cadenza. The March is then stated in full, followed by a pair of bravura variations on the tune, including a striking passage in harmonics. An interlude leads into Desdemona’s Romance, which the violin proceeds to embellish with highly expressive decoration, accelerating to a further cadenza. A third and final variation on the March leads back to a reprise of the introductory material before a thrilling conclusion.
Marvellously effective though both these pieces are in their different ways, the summit of Ernst’s art is probably found in his compositions for unaccompanied violin. His bravura treatment of Schubert’s famous Goethe song Erlkönig—a work that Berlioz had orchestrated and Liszt transcribed as a piano solo—is a case in point. Ernst goes much further than either Berlioz or Liszt in his feat of transformation. Published in 1854, his Grand Caprice pour violon seul sur ‘Le Roi des Aulnes’ de F. Schubert, Op 26, is a concise drama in itself. The piece gives the impression of a manic, feverish moto perpetuo as Schubert’s melody becomes the basis for a torrential display of rapid repeated-note playing. The toccata-like stream of triplets, expressive no doubt of the wuthering storm through which the father rides with his child, never ceases. Violin technique seems to be pushed to the limits of the possible in order to convey the dark, sinister atmosphere of Goethe’s disturbing poem, and at the same time the music crackles with nervous energy in a deeply disturbing way: never more so than when we hear the Erl-King speak in wheezily seductive harmonics, the triplets momentarily transformed into the dance-rhythm of his spectral daughters. Like Paganini or Berlioz, Ernst was nothing if not an out-and-out Romantic, an impression if anything reinforced by the brutally matter-of-fact ending.
Yet for all the literary antecedents of some of his music, Ernst was also a pure artist who was able to concentrate on the development of musical ideas and techniques in themselves and for deeply expressive, boldly exploratory effect; and nowhere do we see this more clearly than in his final work, the set of Sechs mehrstimmige Etüden which occupied his last years and first appeared shortly after his death. Like Paganini’s solo Caprices, the minor-key Études of Alkan or the Transcendental Études of Liszt, these astonishing pieces represent one of the summits of the instrumentalist’s repertoire. In the course of writing them Ernst evolved a vocabulary of signs—some traditional, some new—to indicate whole or half bows, playing with the middle, point or nut, resting the finger on the various strings, striking the string soundlessly as preparation, pizzicati with right or left hand, finger twangs, upwards and downward arpeggios, and so on. But an initial injunction, characteristically, directs the ‘Singing and melody parts to be stressed as much as possible’, and indeed these pieces are always musically satisfying rather than mere prodigies of virtuosity (though they are that as well). Despite their overall title, not all the Etüden are polyphonic in the sense of combining simultaneous contrapuntal lines. Sometimes, like even Bach’s violin fugues on occasion, they merely suggest them, or through wide-leaping figuration give the impression of keeping different areas of the violin’s tessitura in constant activity. In a gesture that anticipates the six solo violin sonatas of Ysaÿe, Ernst dedicated each study to a different great violinist among his contemporaries. Whether, like Ysaÿe, Ernst also sought to convey something of the dedicatees’ individual playing styles, it is now not possible to say, but he presumably at least had their personal musical tastes in view.
Etüde I, a Rondino-Scherzo in F major, is dedicated to a fellow Moravian, the Prague-born virtuoso Ferdinand Laub (1832–1875). A rollicking jig-like idea, apparently in two voices, is contrasted with a gentler melody in A flat with a rapidly flowing accompaniment. The two ideas are magisterially combined in the final section of the work.
Etüde II, an Allegretto in A major, is dedicated to the French violinist-composer Prosper Sainton (1813–1890), who had settled in London. (He was the husband of the singer Charlotte Dolby, for whom Mendelssohn wrote the contralto role in Elijah, and grandfather of the composer Philip Sainton, who wrote the score for John Huston’s film of Moby Dick.) The piece is a kind of kittenish caprice characterized by running quavers (to be played con grazia) with double-stopped accompaniment.
Etüde III in E major, entitled Terzetto, is dedicated to Joachim. As the title implies, this is a genuine polyphonic study in three voices, often three real parts. Despite its complex construction, it emanates a subtle, inward beauty that requires an expressive legato, even in the negotiation of wide-stretched double- and triple-stopped passages, which makes it very difficult to play. The concluding section, marked con molto espressione, must be one of the most challenging things in the violinist’s repertoire.
Etüde IV, a flamboyant C major Allegro risoluto, is inscribed to the Belgian violinist-composer Henri Vieuxtemps. Here flashing moto perpetuo-like scalic figures and arpeggios are contrasted with pugnacious, wide-spanned triple- and quadruple-stopped chords.
Etüde V, entitled Air de Ballet—Allegretto con giusto and in G minor—bears the name of Joseph Hellmesberger (1828– 1893), the celebrated Viennese violinist and conductor, leader of the famed Hellmesberger String Quartet and director for over fifty years of the Vienna Conservatoire. This is a kind of skittish polka with a double-stopped accompaniment, technically rather similar to Etüde II, but entirely different in character.
If any of the Mehrstimmige Etüden has achieved an independent existence it is Etüde VI, undoubtedly the most famous of the set. Subtitled Die letzte Rose, it takes the form of an introduction, theme and variations in G major, the theme being the well-known Irish song ‘The Last Rose of Summer’. The dedication is to the Italian violinist and composer—his works include an opera on Gozzi’s Turandot—Antonio Bazzini (1818–1897). By inscribing this final and crowning piece to a contemporary Italian Ernst was probably also paying homage at one remove to the greatest of all Italian virtuosos, his hero and the founder of the school of virtuosity of which he and Bazzini were both exemplars: Niccolò Paganini. Certainly this Etüde emulates, and seeks to surpass, Paganini’s unaccompanied variation works.
After a dramatic introduction, the theme is stated lyrically, though already with a full accompaniment. There follow four variations, of which the first is a brilliant embellishment in thirds, sixths and octaves. Variation II is a dazzling spiccato cross-string arpeggio study, eventually requiring notation on two staves for its closing bars. Variation III takes the theme’s initial figure of three rising notes and turns it into a heroic polyphonic ascent; Variation IV combines fluid, rapid scales with the tune in left-hand pizzicato notes and harmonics. Harmonics become a prominent feature of the extended finale, which as a display of bravura rivals anything to be found in Paganini’s Caprices.
Calum MacDonald © 2008