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Eugène Ysaÿe (1858-1931)

Sonatas for solo violin

Frederieke Saeijs (violin)
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Recording details: October 2014
Philharmonie Haarlem, Netherlands
Produced by Guido Tichelman
Engineered by Guido Tichelman & Bastiaan Kuijt
Release date: November 2015
Total duration: 77 minutes 52 seconds

Frederieke Saeijs’ Linn debut sees the Dutch violinist realize a lifelong ambition to put her personal stamp on Ysaÿe’s homage to her chosen instrument and its celebrated virtuosos. With inspiration drawn from the great violin masters, Ysaÿe’s Sonatas have in turn inspired many violinists to transcend technical boundaries and claim their own position among the greats.

A 24-bit 192 kHz studio master for this album is available from the Linn Records website.


'What serves Saeijs best, though, is her breadth of imagination—a prerequisite given that each of these sonatas is dedicated to a different violinist. She clearly delights in the contrasts between characters' (Gramophone)
Eugène Ysaÿe (1858–1931) is often described as a violinist with a unique technical control and, simultaneously, an extraordinary feeling for sensitivity and intensity of expression. The gramophone recordings he made in 1912 confirm the accuracy of this description. Ysaÿe’s contemporaries certainly considered him one of the greatest violinists of his time. Composers such as Ernest Chausson, Gabriel Fauré, César Franck and Guillaume Lekeu dedicated works to him. Among Ysaÿe’s own compositions, the six sonatas for solo violin are among his best-known works.

Ysaÿe was born on 16 July 1858 in Liège, Belgium. He received his first violin lessons from his father and continued his studies with famous violinists of the era, including Lambert Massart, Henryk Wieniawski and Henry Vieuxtemps. Ysaÿe gained widespread fame after the pianist Anton Rubinstein heard him play and invited him to tour Russia; in 1883 he moved to Paris, where he gave many performances with the pianist Raoul Pugno.

In 1886 Ysaÿe returned to Belgium, where he became violin professor at the Brussels Conservatoire and established the Ysaÿe Quartet. Claude Debussy, Vincent d’Indy and Camille Saint-Saëns composed string quartets for the group. In 1887, Franck presented his famous Sonata in A major for violin and piano to Ysaÿe as a wedding gift.

The first time Ysaÿe set foot on American soil was in 1894, when he gave a performance of Beethoven’s Violin Concerto with the New York Philharmonic. It was to prove a sensational debut, and Ysaÿe would return to perform in the United States on many occasions. His popularity led to an invitation to become music director of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, a position he held between 1918 and 1922.

Ysaÿe was highly respected by colleagues and students alike. His most renowned students included Ernest Bloch, Mathieu Crickboom, Alfred Dubois, Josef Gingold, Louis Persinger and William Primrose. In addition to his fame as a violinist, composer, conductor and teacher, Ysaÿe received recognition from Queen Elisabeth of Belgium, who in 1937 founded the Eugène Ysaÿe Competition in his honour. In 1951 the name was changed to the Queen Elisabeth Competition, but as Boris Schwarz states in his book Great Masters of the Violin: ‘Among connoisseurs it will always remain the Prix Ysaÿe, honoring the memory of a truly great master’.

Ysaÿe suffered from diabetes, which later in life led to the amputation of his right foot and his confinement to a wheelchair. He died in 1931. The idea of composing a set of sonatas for solo violin came to Ysaÿe after he heard a performance by the Hungarian violinist Joseph Szigeti of one of J.S. Bach’s solo sonatas. The combination of virtuosity and musicality in Szigeti’s playing made Ysaÿe realize that the capacities of the instrument could be greatly extended in the hands of the right violinist. Ysaÿe composed the sonatas between 1923 and 1924 at his house by the sea in Knokke-le-Zoute. The pieces reflect current musical trends, so that they use traditional harmonies alongside considerable dissonance, whole-tone scales and even quarter-tones. Each sonata is dedicated to a younger contemporary violinist and is intended as a musical portrait of the dedicatee.

The first sonata is dedicated to Szigeti (1892–1973); as Schwarz notes, ‘No greater tribute could have been imagined’. Though his early years were mainly devoted to playing virtuoso show pieces, Szigeti later encountered such composers as Ferruccio Busoni and Béla Bartók and became an increasingly enthusiastic advocate of modern music. He premiered Bartók’s Rhapsody No 1 and, among other concertos, brought those by Sergei Prokofiev (No 1) and Ernest Bloch to a wider audience. Furthermore, during the early decades of the twentieth century his interpretations of Bach’s Six Sonatas and Partitas for solo violin created a new understanding of those compositions.

Szigeti was also renowned as a teacher, his best-known students including Kyung-Wha Chung, Franco Gulli and Arnold Steinhardt. He wrote a memoir, With Strings Attached: Reminiscences and Reflections, in which he talks about his experiences as a violinist and offers some unique insights into violin playing. The four movements of ‘his’ sonata reflect the typical layout of one of Bach’s: Grave—Fugato—Allegretto poco scherzoso—Finale con brio.

Ysaÿe wrote the second sonata for the French violinist Jacques Thibaud (1880–1953). In the opening of the first movement (‘Obsession’), Ysaÿe quotes the beginning of the Preludio from the Partita in E major, BWV 1006; Ysaÿe and Thibaud shared a passion for the music of Bach, and the Preludio was said to be an ‘obsessive’ part of Thibaud’s daily practice routine. Another striking characteristic of this sonata is the fact that Ysaÿe weaves through all four movements the ominous ‘Dies irae’ theme from the Missa pro defunctis, the Catholic Requiem Mass.

Thibaud had a large musical personality and a unique, individual style of playing. He performed a wide variety of Spanish and French violin pieces, but was also highly esteemed for his performances of Mozart’s violin concertos and sonatas. David Oistrakh remarked that his ‘interpretations of the classics were not hemmed in by dry academicism, and when he played French music he was incomparable …a model for future generations of violinists’; while Yehudi Menuhin admired the Frenchman’s phrasing, which, he said, ‘showed a total lack of concern for the metronome’.

On 1 September 1953, en route to a tour of the Far East, Thibaud was a passenger on a plane that crashed into Mount Cemet, high in the French Alps. There were no survivors, and Thibaud’s 1720 Stradivarius was never found. To some it seemed as if Ysaÿe had unwittingly predicted his friend’s tragic fate, not just in the use of the ‘Dies irae’ theme but also in the sinister movement titles: ‘Obsession’—‘Melancholy’—‘Dance of the Shades’—‘Goddesses of Vengeance’. His almost exact contemporary Georges Enescu (1881–1955) remembered Thibaud as follows:

I was fifteen when I heard him for the first time. I honestly admit that it took my breath away. I was beside myself with enthusiasm. It was so new, so unusual …Thibaud was the first among violinists to reveal to the public an entirely new sound—the result of a complete union between hand and string. His playing was marvelously tender and passionate. I pity all young violinists who have not heard Thibaud: in their book of memories an irreplaceable image is lacking.

And it is to Enescu that Ysaÿe dedicated the third sonata. Enescu was a Romanian violinist, composer, conductor and teacher. Titled ‘Ballade’, this is one of the shortest of the six sonatas, and one of only two cast in a single movement. Enescu received his first lessons from a gypsy violinist; the gypsy influence remained with him his entire life, and was evident both in his style of playing and in his love of Romanian folk music. As Menuhin wrote: ‘Everything about him proclaimed the free man, the man who is strong with the freedom of gypsies.’ Enescu’s contemporaries would speak of his absolutely original technique and highly individual command of the instrument.

As a teacher, Enescu counted among his pupils several of the great violinists of the twentieth century, including Christian Ferras, Ivry Gitlis, Arthur Grumiaux, Ida Haendel and Menuhin. The secret behind his extraordinary pedagogical capacities is difficult to determine today, 60 years after his death. Menuhin made an attempt: ‘A lesson was an inspiration, not a stage reached in the course of instruction. It was the making of music …What I received from him was the note transformed into vital message, the phrase given shape and meaning, the structure of music made vivid.’

Ysaÿe composed the fourth sonata for the Viennese virtuoso Fritz Kreisler (1875–1962). Here he applied eighteenth-century compositional techniques in reference to Kreisler’s numerous compositions purportedly ‘by various’ classical masters. The first two movement titles echo the Baroque dances of Bach’s violin partitas, while the finale that follows has a number of moments reminiscent of Kreisler’s then extremely popular Praeludium and Allegro ‘in the style of Pugnani’.

Kreisler had a profound influence on modern-day violin playing, most obviously by his initiation of ‘continuous vibrato’: according to the famous violin pedagogue Carl Flesch, this was the single most important contribution to the art of violin playing in the twentieth century. In addition, Kreisler swiftly grasped the popular potential of the emergent recording industry: a great many of his compositions are tailored to fit on one side of a 78rpm record. These attractive miniatures, as well as Kreisler’s Viennese style of playing, won the hearts of innumerable music lovers. Nathan Milstein, comparing dedicatee and composer, said: ‘Everyone in Russia knew that Kreisler was “the king of the violin”. However, for Ysaÿe this title was insufficient, so he was called “the Tsar”.’

The fifth sonata is dedicated to Mathieu Crickboom (1871–1947), who became second violinist of the Ysaÿe Quartet after completing his studies with Ysaÿe at the Brussels Conservatory. Though he gave regular performances as a soloist, Crickboom is best remembered today as a teacher and as the author of a violin method that remains in use to this day.

In fine weather, Ysaÿe was known to take his students outside for a picnic that would be followed by a practice session of scales and finger exercises in the shade of the trees. References to those sunny days are present in this sonata’s themes, which Ysaÿe had originally devised as exercises: some of the techniques here, such as left-hand pizzicato during legato playing, demand a very high level of technical proficiency indeed. The work is sometimes called the ‘Pastoral’ Sonata, its character reflected in the titles of the two movements: ‘Dawn’ and ‘Rural Dance’.

The sixth sonata was written for the brilliant Spanish virtuoso Manuel Quiroga Losada (1892–1961) and is in the style of a caprice espagnol. Quiroga was dubbed the ‘new Sarasate’, but a serious traffic accident in 1937 in Times Square, New York, abruptly ended his career. He did, however, continue to teach and compose.

This second one-movement sonata, which for some reason Quiroga never performed in public, has a clear Spanish influence and demands a virtuoso style of playing. According to Ysaÿe’s son Antoine: ‘It is in remembering the Spanish violinist’s playing style, which reminded him of Sarasate, that the master conceived his last Sonata for unaccompanied violin. Here, even more than in the others, the master endeavors to adapt the violinistic writing to the playing of the artist to whom the work is dedicated.’ In fact it is largely thanks to Ysaÿe’s sonata that Quiroga’s name lives today, since his recordings are relatively little known. Yet those who have heard them understand immediately why the Spanish master was so highly respected by violinists such as Elman, Enescu, Heifetz, Kreisler and Ysaÿe.

And it is thanks to Quiroga that Ysaÿe composed a sonata that, of all these works, places him firmly in the grand tradition of the violin virtuoso, the tradition that began with Nicolò Paganini.

Kolja Meeuwsen © 2015

I should like to thank: the Dutch National Foundation for Musical Instruments for the long-term loan of the precious ‘Ex Reine Elisabeth’ violin by Pietro Guarneri (1725) as well as an Eugène Sartory bow; the Kersjes Foundation for their generous financial contribution; Guido Tichelman and Bastiaan Kuijt for their professional guidance and encouragement throughout the recording process; Linn for their interest and faith in this project; all my former teachers for their invaluable contribution to my development as a violinist, artist and person; and finally, all my loved ones for their unending support and loving presence.

À Mauricio Fuks
The magical world of sound created by Eugène Ysaÿe draws me like an irresistible magnet. In these solo sonatas, inspired by a broad palette of colours and an infinite imagination, Ysaÿe challenges the violinist to transcend technical boundaries. I have attempted, in the light of the numerous instructions in the score, to translate Ysaÿe’s abstract language into a natural and coherent story for the listener.

Each sonata reflects the playing of the great violin master to whom it is dedicated. I feel blessed to have received lessons from a living violin legend: Mauricio Fuks. He tirelessly encouraged me to reach into the deepest corners of my soul in order to connect to my inner voice, and to use the timelessly beautiful sounds of the earlier masters as a source of inspiration. I therefore dedicate this album to him, with great love and gratitude.

The violin I play was once played by the renowned Belgian violinist Carlo Van Neste. In friendship and appreciation, Queen Elisabeth of Belgium provided him with the financial means to buy the instrument, whence the sobriquet ‘Ex Reine Elisabeth’. (In due course the violin passed to the Dutch National Foundation for Musical Instruments and thence, on loan, to me.) Queen Elisabeth was herself an accomplished violinist and received lessons from Ysaÿe: things have come full circle.

Furthermore, there is a coincidental resonance between my name, (Frederieke) Eugenie Saeijs, and that of Eugène Ysaÿe; and in fact my late uncle was called Eugène Saeijs. The interwovenness of our names surely—even tongue in cheek—draws me yet further towards Ysaÿe’s music. And there is a parallel of place: Ysaÿe composed these sonatas at his seaside house in Knokke-le-Zoute, a popular Belgian bathing resort near the Dutch border; I grew up in The Hague, very near the popular bathing resort of Scheveningen. How well I can imagine the inspiration that must have visited Ysaÿe as he surveyed the surrounding dunes and breathed in the fresh wind of the North Sea.

I have worked on this project with all my heart and, though the quest for the perfect interpretation is without end, I am very happy to share the results with you. I wish you an inspiring and adventurous journey through the extraordinary landscapes of ‘Mount Ysaÿe’.

Frederieke Saeijs © 2015

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