The last couple of times I heard Ysaÿe’s six sonatas, they sounded really hard to play. That is, in part, because they are. Eugène Ysaÿe (1858-1931) was not just Belgium’s greatest conductor and composer but a virtuoso violinist of such uplifting qualities that he inspired César Franck to compose his unique sonata and Claude Debussy his only string quartet.
Unlike Vivaldi and JS Bach, Ysaÿe did not write sonatas as teaching instruments for struggling students. They were intended for high performers like himself, designed to separate the inimitable from the merely excellent. Four were dedicated to immortals—Joseph Szigeti, Jacques Thibaud, George Enescu and Fritz Kreisler—and two to close colleagues, Mathieu Crickboom and Manuel Quiroga. Once he got the idea, in 1923, Ysaÿe wrote all six in the space of a year. If they sound laboured to your ears, it’s a sign the player is not up to the job.
Alina Ibragimova, young and UK-Russian, imposes herself on the sonatas with an authority that is arrestingly quiet. I cannot recall any artist who keeps the level down with such fierce determination, avoiding the temptation of a flashy trill in favour of maximum concentration.
Listen to the Second Sonata, where Ysaÿe plays around with a Bach prelude before plunging into the morbidity of the Dies Irae. The writing is full of in-jokes at Thibaud’s expense and trip-ups for unwary fingers. Ibragimova soars high above the pitfalls to deliver a hair-raising meditation on the fragility of mortal aspiration. Her playing is of unerring and at times unearthly accuracy, yet the effect she projects is totally warm and compassionate; of sympathy for the human condition. Among the 20-odd recordings of the complete sonatas, this becomes immediately my preferred choice.