Ysaÿe’s 1924 sonatas have long been staples on disc. The only sadness for those of a historical turn of mind is that the dedicatees never recorded the music which has only really made disc headway from the 1960s onwards. There have been a number of recommendable traversals of late and Alina Ibragimova’s disc certainly falls into that category. She is a technically adroit performer, interpretatively slightly watchful rather than resonant, but inclined to risk very daring dynamics, and architecturally wholly on top of the six sonatas.
So whilst she vests the First Sonata with sufficient drama, the dramatic sense isn’t derived from tensile bowing and resinous attacks; rather it comes from an introspective quality allied to some playing so quiet—the sul ponticello episode that ends the Grave, for instance—that one wonders if she’s playing at all. Inevitably some listeners will find this overdone. I have to admit that I do, too, but I acknowledge the consistency of her approach and the profoundly daring interpretative stance she adopts. In some senses it’s diametrically opposed to Ruggiero Ricci’s old recording, where super-fast speeds were allied to abrasive bowing and a scruff-of-the-neck brilliance.
Ibragimova is in many ways no less brilliant, but this quality is often pointed inwards. She plays Jacques Thibaud’s sonata, No 2 in A minor, with the right kind of deadpan and dons the mute in its second movement to deliver a most refined and elegant Sicilienne. Similarly the drone effects in the third movement are pointed but not over stressed. Like Oscar Shumsky, she prefers to let No 3 breathe rather more than Ricci, in his helter-skelter recording. This single-movement Ballade dedicated to Enescu, incarnates some of the Romanian player’s own expressive devices in its admixture of Bach and folkloric material—to both of which she responds well.
Parts of the sonata dedicated to Kreisler always remind me not simply of Bach but of Schumann’s Second Sonata. Crucially Ibragimova touches on but doesn’t overplay the baroquisms in this work and the clear allusions to Kreisler’s own pseudo-baroque Pugnani confection emerge all the more drolly for being amalgamated into the free-flowing fabric of the music—rather than being high-lit. Amidst the more famous players Ysaÿe’s student and second violinist in his quartet, Matthieu Crickboom, tends to be overlooked. But Crickboom was a fellow Belgian and there’s a strong sense of shared inheritance—musical, pictorial, narrative—in the Fifth Sonata. The beautiful dawn evoked is almost painterly and though it is somewhat anomalous in the context of the set of six it adds a richer and more allusive depth to this sonata. The dance motifs in the second of the two movements are played with warmth—though her vibrato is well controlled and excess fat is trimmed. The final sonata was dedicated to that delicious player Manuel Quiroga whose few 78rpm records are played with wonderful tone and style. Something of his brilliant technique and sense of colour is written into this sonata and Iberian vitality too. Maybe that last quality is a little lacking in Alina Ibragimova’s performance.
Shumsky’s set (Nimbus) remains a reference one—a player seemingly fully imbued in the spirit of the sonatas - and Leonidas Kavakos’ recording (BIS) continues to impress too. Ibragimova’s reading, sympathetically recorded, stands apart from them, somewhat, in its avoidance of crunchy bowing and its daring ability to draw the ear in, and is notably valuable for her all-round instrumental and expressive excellence.