This release is an absolute treat for lovers of the violin who enjoy hearing it without accompaniment.
By way of introduction, let me quote from Antoine Ysaÿe’s biography of his father: 'It was after hearing Joseph Szigeti play a Bach Sonata that Ysaÿe was moved to write his own Sonatas. ‘I found in Szigeti that rare combination of the musician and the virtuoso. As an artist he seemed conscious of a high mission into which he put all his faith, and he placed technique entirely at the service of musical expression.’ Afterwards, throughout a journey by car from Brussels to Le Zoute, Ysaÿe discussed the violin and its repertoire, which he found too limited. Summing up, he said: ‘When one hears an artist like Szigeti who is able to accommodate his playing to the rectangular lines of the great classics as easily as he can to the expressive melodies of the romantics, one feels how absorbing it would be to compose a work for the violin whilst keeping ever before one the style of one particular violinist.’ When he arrived that evening at Le Zoute, Ysaÿe returned to his study and did not reappear until the following evening. His meals were served to him on a table at his side, and when finally he came out again he was radiant. ‘There, I have sketched ideas for six violin sonatas.’ Then, during the following days, he completed the work and sent it to the printer.' The year was 1923.
As most readers will know, each of the six works is dedicated to a friend who was also a great violinist. Szigeti was thrilled when Ysaÿe showed him the sketches of the first one, with his name written above it, and later he studied the published version deeply before playing it in many musical centres including London, Berlin and New York. According to Antoine Ysaÿe, the first four Sonatas were 'frequently played by the artists to whom they were dedicated', but to his knowledge the Fifth and Sixth were never performed in public by their dedicatees.
Szigeti thought that the Sonatas were probably 'more important as a violinistic testament than as a creative effort that can stand critical evaluation in cold blood', that they had a sentimental place in Ysaÿe’s affections and that they perhaps were 'a subconscious attempt on his part to perpetuate his own elusive playing style.' Having known them via recordings for 30 or 40 years, I have come to love them and I feel that they are not only beautifully written for the violin but well worth hearing in their own right.
The first thing to say, when recommending them to others, is that they are most concisely and succinctly composed and therefore do not outstay their welcome. Some of Ysaÿe’s earlier works, much as I love them, do ‘go on a bit’; but there is not an ounce of fat on any of the 15 movements here.
We can assume that the Bach Sonata Ysaÿe heard Szigeti play was the G minor. His own essay in the same key pays a certain amount of homage to Bach, with an opening ‘Grave’ followed by a ‘Fugato’, a sort of scherzo marked Amabile, and a ‘Finale con brio’. Double- and multiple-stopping is much in evidence. Alina Ibragimova plays the first movement very well, in a confiding manner, with the tremolos at the end well controlled. The ‘Fugato’ is nicely handled and by now one is aware that the recording quality is superb. With the Allegretto one notices what a wide range of dynamics Ibragimova observes, with some very soft playing. The finale is forceful in a pleasing way.
Sonata No 2 is for Jacques Thibaud and the first movement, subtitled ‘Obsession’, plays with the famous bariolage of the Prelude to Bach’s E major Partita—a favourite Thibaud warm-up exercise—as well as the ‘Dies irae’ motif, which also haunts the other three movements. Roger Nichols, who provides the booklet essay, suspects little jokes between Ysaÿe and Thibaud and I am sure he is right. The two men knew each other intimately and anyone less like the ‘Dies irae’ than the urbane Thibaud would be hard to find—similarly with the passage marked brutalement. Ibragimova integrates the various quotations skilfully into the first movement, plays the wistful muted ‘Malinconia’ beautifully, picks out the ‘Dies irae’ nicely in pizzicato at the start of the ‘Danse des ombres’, playing the following variations sensitively, and gives us a particularly wide range of dynamics in the concluding ‘Les furies’.
Sonata No 3, for George Enescu, is possibly the best known, as many of the great fiddlers of the Russian school have played it, notably David Oistrakh. It is in one movement subtitled ‘Ballade’ and adds a certain amount of Romanian-style colour to its classical outline. It is very well played by Ibragimova, with great conviction, especially in the storming final few bars.
Sonata No 4, for Fritz Kreisler, has a certain Kreisleresque mock-baroque to it with its ‘Allemanda’ and ‘Sarabande’, showing that Ysaÿe, like Enescu, Busch and others, had sniffed out Kreisler’s authorship of his Pugnani and Corelli confections long before Kreisler publicly confessed in 1935. Ibragimova brings out the melodic material cleverly in the ‘Allemanda’ and is very touching in the ‘Sarabande’, which begins with pizzicato. Ysaÿe added some pizzicato at the end, after publication, and I think Oscar Shumsky was the first to play this ending. Everyone seems to play it now, although I notice that Frank Peter Zimmermann spreads the three chords into separate notes. Ibragimova firmly steers the finale, where Nichols hears references to Kreisler’s ‘Pugnani’ Praeludium & Allegro—I think he is right. This Sonata was set as a test piece in the first Ysaÿe Competition in Brussels in 1937, won by Oistrakh.
Sonata No 5, for Ysaÿe’s quartet colleague Mathieu Crickboom, was supposed to be called ‘Pastorale’ but the title seems to have fallen by the wayside. A pity, as it expresses the mood of the piece. A movement headed ‘L’aurore’ (Dawn), beginning quietly and featuring trills like birdsong, is followed by a ‘Danse rustique’ which Crickboom, as a fellow Belgian, would have understood instantly. Ibragimova makes the sun rise atmospherically and starts and ends the ‘Danse’ very rhythmically, as requested. She maintains excellent rhythm even in the rapid runs and other finger-busters.
Sonata No 6, for the Spanish violinist Manuel Quiroga whose career was ended early by a traffic accident in New York, is in one movement full of delightful little Spanish nudges—tango and habanera rhythms and the like. Everything is quite subtle and Ibragimova responds with refinement—the ending is lovely.
It hardly seems possible that these recordings were made in the same space as the rather horrid-sounding Shumsky. Producer Andrew Keener and engineer Simon Eadon have done a superb job. The discography of these Sonatas used to be distinguished but meagre. On 78rpm records we had a splendid version of the G minor by Efrem Zimbalist but only Ysaÿe’s great pupil Alfred Dubois and Oistrakh took up the obvious hint that the Ballade would go nicely on to one disc—and no-one bothered with the equally brief E major. LP-buyers had the whole set from the predictably enterprising Hyman Bress, very good, and various individual efforts including two Sonatas by Michael Rabin.
The CD era has brought a flood of versions. The most distinguished of those I have heard up to now is Zimmermann’s from 1994 and Ibragimova is right up there with him. He is slightly faster than she in every movement except the outer two of the E minor, which allows him to add two pieces with piano as fillers, but his versions seem no longer available—so anyone interested may buy this Hyperion production with total confidence.