Hyperion Records

Sechs Mehrstimmige Etüden
published shortly after Ernst's death

'Ernst: Violin Music' (CDA67619)
Ernst: Violin Music
Buy by post £10.50 CDA67619 
No 1: Rondino scherzo: Con spirito
No 2: Allegretto: Con grazia
No 3: Terzetto: Allegro moderato e tranquillo
No 4: Allegro risoluto
No 5: Air de Ballet: Allegretto con giusto
No 6 'Die letzte Rose', Variations on The Last Rose of Summer: A. Introduction. Moderato – Theme. Andante non troppo
No 6 'Die letzte Rose', Variations on The Last Rose of Summer: B. Variation I
No 6 'Die letzte Rose', Variations on The Last Rose of Summer: C. Variation II
No 6 'Die letzte Rose', Variations on The Last Rose of Summer: D. Variation III
No 6 'Die letzte Rose', Variations on The Last Rose of Summer: E. Variation IV. Poco più vivo
No 6 'Die letzte Rose', Variations on The Last Rose of Summer: F. Finale

Sechs Mehrstimmige Etüden
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.

from notes by Calum MacDonald © 2008

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