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Release Date: April 10, 2020
Catalog #: NV6281
Format: Digital & Physical

Six Sonatas for Solo Violin

Thomas Bowes violin

Acclaimed English violinist Thomas Bowes seems to have a penchant for thoroughness and completion. Known and praised for his complete recording of all J. S. Bach’s sonatas and partitas, the European virtuoso has now taken it upon himself to embark on another quest for totality. This time, it is the six sonatas by Belgian violinist Eugène Ysaÿe (1858-1931), presented on Bowes' new album, EUGÈNE YSAŸE: SIX SONATAS FOR SOLO VIOLIN. As one would expect from Bowes, they are played to passionate perfection.

Ysaÿe, hailed in his time as no less than the "King of the Violin", is a formidable figure to take on for any modern musician. He was famed not only for precision but more especially for a deeply affecting, quasi-supernatural power of communication. A man of immense generosity and largeness of spirit It is difficult to imagine any violinist adequately reproducing Ysaÿe's compositions and this special aura. Doubly so if one considers the background of the Six Sonatas for Violin. They were written at a crucial point late in life. Plagued by illness and doubt and finding himself increasingly cut off from playing his beloved instrument as he would wish, this deep frustration found expression in this encapsulation of his art.  In short, these works – all sketched out at white heat in a 24-hour period and hair-raisingly complex and difficult for the player – are an embodiment of the man.

Thankfully, Bowes not only possesses the technical mastery to command every playing requirement; he also approaches these works with a great sense of empathy towards their creator. It is this attribute which affords him the rarest of insights into Ysaÿe's violinistic mastermind. In fact, Bowes plays with such zest and clarity that the listener occasionally needs to be reminded that these are indeed sonatas for solo violin, not for an ensemble of two or three musicians. It is truly a feast for the ears, and one that has rarely been approached with such sympathy – up until now, that is.

The digital version of the album also includes a stunning performance of one of Ysaye’s rarely heard orchestral works - the miniature masterpiece Exil for the unusual scoring of massed violins and violas.

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Track Listing & Credits

# Title Composer Performer
01 Sonata for Solo Violin in E Major, Op. 27 No. 6 "Manuel Quiroga" Eugène Ysaÿe Thomas Bowes, violin 8:39
02 Sonata for Solo Violin in G Minor, Op. 27 No. 1 "Joseph Szigeti": I. Grave - Lento assai Eugène Ysaÿe Thomas Bowes, violin 4:26
03 Sonata for Solo Violin in G Minor, Op. 27 No. 1 "Joseph Szigeti": II. Fugato. Molto moderato Eugène Ysaÿe Thomas Bowes, violin 4:56
04 Sonata for Solo Violin in G Minor, Op. 27 No. 1 "Joseph Szigeti": III. Allegretto poco scherzoso. Amabile Eugène Ysaÿe Thomas Bowes, violin 4:40
05 Sonata for Solo Violin in G Minor, Op. 27 No. 1 "Joseph Szigeti": IV. Finale con brio. Allegra fermo Eugène Ysaÿe Thomas Bowes, violin 2:51
06 Sonata for Solo Violin in E Minor, Op. 27 No. 4 "Fritz Kreisler": II. Sarabande. Quasi lento Eugène Ysaÿe Thomas Bowes, violin 6:09
07 Sonata for Solo Violin in E Minor, Op. 27 No. 4 "Fritz Kreisler": II. Sarabande. Quasi lento Eugène Ysaÿe Thomas Bowes, violin 4:01
08 Sonata for Solo Violin in E Minor, Op. 27 No. 4 "Fritz Kreisler": III. Finale. Presto ma non troppo Eugène Ysaÿe Thomas Bowes, violin 3:22
09 Sonata for Solo Violin in D Minor, Op. 27 No. 3 "Ballade" Eugène Ysaÿe Thomas Bowes, violin 7:54
10 Sonata for Solo Violin in A Minor, Op. 27 No. 2 "Obsession": I. Prélude. Poco vivace Eugène Ysaÿe Thomas Bowes, violin 2:51
11 Sonata for Solo Violin in A Minor, Op. 27 No. 2 "Obsession": II. Malinconia. Poco lento Eugène Ysaÿe Thomas Bowes, violin 2:45
12 Sonata for Solo Violin in A Minor, Op. 27 No. 2 "Obsession": III. Danse des ombres. Sarabande Eugène Ysaÿe Thomas Bowes, violin 4:32
13 Sonata for Solo Violin in A Minor, Op. 27 No. 2 "Obsession": IV. Les furies. Allegro furioso Eugène Ysaÿe Thomas Bowes, violin 3:28
14 Sonata for Solo Violin in G Major, Op. 27 No. 5 "Mathieu Crickboom": I. L'aurore. Lento assai Eugène Ysaÿe Thomas Bowes, violin 5:11
15 Sonata for Solo Violin in G Major, Op. 27 No. 5 "Mathieu Crickboom": II. Danse rustique. Allegro giocoso molto moderato Eugène Ysaÿe Thomas Bowes, violin 5:17
16 Exil, Op. 25 Eugène Ysaÿe Ensemble 2000 | Tony Harrison, conductor; Thomas Bowes, ensemble leader 10:17

Recorded January 25-26 & May 2-3, 2019 at Wyastone Concert Hall in Monmouth, Wales, United Kingdom

Session Producer & Editor Stephen Frost
Session Engineer Arne Akselberg

Microphones:
DPA 4006 (Pair)
Neumann TLM 50 (Pair)
Neumann TLM 170 (Pair)
DPA 4015 (Pair)
AEA R84

Credits for EXIL
Recorded July 24, 1995 at Abbey Road Studios in London, England, United Kingdom
Producer Stephen Frost
Engineer Mike Clements
Remastering Kirsty Whalley, Peter Cobbin

Executive Producer Bob Lord

Executive A&R Sam Renshaw
A&R Director Brandon MacNeil
A&R Danielle Lewis

VP, Audio Production Jeff LeRoy
Audio Director Lucas Paquette

VP, Design & Marketing Brett Picknell
Art Director Ryan Harrison
Design Edward A. Fleming
Publicity Patrick Niland, Sara Warner

Artist Information

Thomas Bowes

Violinist

Thomas Bowes is one of the UK’s finest violinists. In addition to his concert performances and classical recordings, he is very active in the realm of cinema, and millions have heard him on the soundtracks of over 200 films.

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Notes

"Everything about Ysaÿe was romantic. The little boy practicing in the cellar at Liège being overheard by Vieuxtemps, the young man throwing his boots into the fire as he undresses after hearing Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde, the bridegroom playing the Franck Sonata at his own wedding… his compositions, his thoughts, his language, his appearance, his very death…” from; Ysaÿe, his Life, Work and Influence by Antoine Ysaÿe and Bertram Ratcliffe.

Eugène Ysaÿe (1858-1931) was a colossus, a generous and heroic spirit. To hear him play was to be blessed with an experience that remained in the memory almost like a living thing. “Surely no more complete a man has ever been known to make a career of violin playing,” wrote Yehudi Menuhin. Likewise, when Artur Rubinstein was considering all the great performers he had played with over his long career, he placed Ysaÿe in a league of his own. Next to Ysaÿe, he commented, “all the others were like little children.”

When these Sonatas were sketched out, Ysaÿe’s best playing days were behind him. The effects of a childhood wrist injury and the onset of diabetes had given him problems with his hands for many years. At least a decade earlier he had confessed that he could now only hope for occasional good days. He turned his energies increasingly to composition.

In the summer of 1923 Ysaÿe heard Joseph Szigeti give a performance of Bach’s G minor solo Sonata. It made a deep impression. Post-concert, the two discussed the absence of meaningful music for solo violin since Bach’s Sonatas and Partitas. Ysaÿe perceived that he might write a tribute to Bach and Szigeti, but further, that a set of works – each a portrait of an admired younger colleague – might complete a wider homage to Bach’s magnum opus. Back home he disappeared into his study, emerging 24 hours later to proclaim that six sonatas had been sketched out.

These Sonatas would be an encapsulation of Ysaÿe’s art. One senses that he found much consolation in conjuring the qualities of the younger players he so greatly admired. (Perhaps there is even a parallel here with Elgar’s Enigma Variations. Ysaÿe had given a visionary rendition of Elgar’s concerto in Berlin in 1913 and would have played it more had not a badly handled dispute over hire fees upset him; Elgar was furious.)

The writing in the Sonatas is astonishingly exact for the recreation of such free-sounding music. Ysaÿe actually makes clear that he expects those playing the pieces to follow his instructions to the letter. This was a “modern” attitude and a quality he found admirable in Szigeti’s approach. (Ysaÿe would have grown up at a time when printed text was merely the starting point for arbitrary elaboration.) There is, I feel, in these sonatas a confluence of all that was eternal in his world, with elements of the radical and modern thrown in. There are quarter tones, multiple stoppings, effects of bow and pizzicato as well as pure counterpoint and forms that Bach would have recognized.

As well as treating the text as faithfully as Ysaÿe asks, I have on this recording tried to align my approach with other less tangible elements of Ysaÿe’s playing – in particular that “higher and rarer quality of an almost mystical nature, combined of faith, generosity, and instinctive feeling for beauty and a sensitivity that never erred” as described by Antoine Ysaÿe and Bertram Ratcliffe. These more Dionysian qualities are by their nature apparently at odds with a more Apollonian attitude. Not so with Ysaÿe my instinct tells me. I have also placed the Sonatas in a somewhat unusual order, but one to which I find concert audiences respond well when hearing the whole set.

In SONATA 6 Ysaÿe is surely revisiting the vigor of his early career with this irresistibly jubilant Spanish Caprice. The dedicatee, Manuel Quiroga (1892-1961), was a brilliant violinist whose abilities must have been truly prodigious to inspire this athletic romp. Quiroga’s own playing career was cut short by being hit by a truck in New York’s Times Square though he continued to compose and to paint and draw – exhibiting several portraits in collections in Spain. The work is cast in one movement and has a central Habanera episode before the opening music returns with redoubled energy and exuberance.

SONATA 1 is the largest of the set and a tribute to Joseph Szigeti’s (1892-1973) seriousness as an artist. It follows the form of the Bach G minor Sonata that inspired the idea of the whole opus. The first movement rages, the second finds comfort in counterpoint and culminates in organ-like grandeur. The third movement is tenderly nostalgic and the fourth a synthesis of the virtuosic and the serious.

Dedicated to Fritz Kreisler (1875-1962) SONATA 4 pays tribute to this most celebrated style-poacher with a work of deep nobility, pathos and elan. Ysaÿe evokes Kreisler’s ability to compose music in antique style with two titles straight from the 18th century while the finale pays tribute to Kreisler’s insouciant virtuosity. This Sonata was the last music Ysaÿe heard. His young pupil Philip Newman played it to the master outside his bedroom as he lay dying. Afterwards Newman removed the strings from his violin, using them to bind Ysaÿe’s funeral wreath; they would never sound again.

SONATA 3 is dedicated to the Romanian violinist, composer and conductor Georges Enesco (1881-1955). It is the shortest of the Sonatas – a shatteringly compact slab of intensity. After recitative-like formations, a supremely heroic motif emerges to propel the music forward with thrilling inevitability toward an explosive conclusion. Ysaÿe gives the most original composer amongst his friends the central masterpiece of the set.

SONATA 2 is dedicated to the French violinist Jacques Thibaud (1880-1953), Ysaÿe’s closest friend amongst the six. He seems to be teasing the hypochondriacal Thibaud with this death-obsessed work. The opening movement’s “Obsession” is Bach’s Preludio to his E major Partita, Thibaud’s constant warm-up piece and apparently played by Thibaud with annoying regularity. This most deft virtuoso is then exhorted to play “brutalement” as the ancient “Dies Irae” is intoned – it appears repeatedly throughout the rest of the work. “Jacques, we’re all going to die!” Ysaÿe seems to be saying as ‘Melancholy’, a ‘Dance of Shadows’ and finally ‘The Furies’ take the stage yelling and shrieking. Thibaud would die in an air crash, aged 73.

SONATA 5 shows Ysaÿe’s deep longing for a simple bucolic life, a lifestyle that he was only able to touch fleetingly during his long years of touring. The opening movement is a miraculous evocation of the dawn and the following movement is earthed in rustic contentment. The dedicatee is Mathieu Crickboom (1871-1947), a pupil of Ysaÿe and a fellow lover of nature. He was also the second violin in Ysaÿe’s string quartet. When asked to name his finest pupil, Ysaÿe is said to have replied, “Crickboom – he never does what I suggest.”

Taking a longer look at Ysaÿe’s sonatas and the other work Exil, (added as a bonus track – please listen to this amazing piece) a few things strike me as significant. One, is that we are told that Ysaÿe took barely 24 hours to sketch out the sonatas. This sounds almost unbelievable; though believe it we must. He had been to that concert to hear Szigeti play; something was triggered. Ysaÿe, we learn, emerged from his study after returning home, looking radiant and triumphant. He’d had meals brought into him under an otherwise strict “do not disturb” protocol. He’d written over an hour’s music in an astonishingly short time. Almost like a dam bursting one might say. As if the pieces were lying in wait just ready to spring out more or less completely formed.

How so? My instinct is that it was the idea of writing as if someone else that helped the process start, and that once got going, all sorts of things tumbled out – probably so fast that he could hardly get them down. But this is interesting, is it not? The one thing that is clear despite these works being “portraits” of others is that the personality we are really hearing is that of Ysaye himself. Could it be that it was the idea of writing as if in someone else’s shoes that got the creative juices flowing? Well yes, methinks. Every creative artist is different, but perhaps it is not so surprising that apparent restrictions or boundaries get things moving. Perhaps, faced with writing a self-portrait in six sonatas Ysaÿe would have gone blank. Perhaps, the worst commission a creator can get is “write us something – anything you like, anything at all, no restrictions.” I know of one particular film composer who told me that being hemmed in by the time code of moving pictures gets his ideas moving like nothing else. And how many masterpieces did Bach manage when faced with having to write to particular words for a performance scheduled only days away? Of course, this doesn’t hold good for characters like Beethoven and Wagner, but for as generous and gregarious a soul as Ysaÿe, it seems that writing for his friends in admiration is what helped get him over his creative shyness.

And with Exil why does he write only for violins and violas? I know nothing about the parameters of the first performances except he must early on in the process have decided that this would be his palette. The piece does not sound inadequately scored despite what ought, our instincts tells us, to be a very limited range. But the expressiveness we find is increased by the absence of bass sounds. The music strains and rages against the restriction and threatens to bust out of the sound world it inhabits. The effect is, that it sounds “exiled.”

This quality is apparent too in the first version Schonberg’s Verklarte Nacht for string sextet. The sense of the things being described as being almost too big for the forces adds to the expression as they struggle to stay within a confined space. In the version for larger strings the music becomes instantly much more beautiful and any conductor must work to relocate this aspect of the music’s expression.

I wondered too about Ysaÿe and Elgar – as I touch on in my earlier notes. Elgar was thrilled that Ysaÿe was playing his concerto – then a more or less brand-new work. It had been premiered by Kreisler in London and Ysaÿe was clearly very nervous about presenting the work in Berlin. He confides in a letter of his worry at all the violinists in Europe turning up to hear the public rehearsal and then the concert – including Kreisler himself. Ysaÿe must have felt like a champion defending his title. He owns up to his terror. Would his disobedient hands behave themselves? Would his memory hold up? He triumphed, much to his enormous relief, and all were cheering him at the end.

But there is something very touching about this concert in all sorts of ways. Like so many events happening just before the outbreak of the 1914-18 Great War, it looks so fragile now, and all rather charmingly chivalrous. “Little did they know” is written all over it. Elgar was perhaps at the zenith of his reputation as a progressive European composer – instead of being the emblem of Britishness that he was forced into during and after the war. (Writing these notes now, I’ve been unable to re-check the facts surrounding the embarrassing mess up with the publishers that took place afterwards. But I’m rather sure that it went like this: Ysaÿe had been using a set of parts sent out in hope that he might take the piece up. Imagine how thrilled Elgar would have been to know that “The King of the Violin” was indeed playing his concerto; and how furious he was when a testy note from the publishers reached Ysaÿe calling for unpaid fees and upset him to the point of dropping it.)

But then in 1923 just maybe Elgar, in the form of his Enigma Variations, acted as a model for Ysaÿe’s set of pieces, born, as they are, out of love and friendship for his younger colleagues. Rarely did Elgar reveal so much about himself by writing of his love for friends, and with these sonatas Ysaÿe gives us the most complete portrait of himself – the King of the Violin – presiding over his gracious, adoring, and adored subjects.

— Thomas Bowes

I sometimes think classical music is not meant to be recorded. Pop and rock music is written with at least one eye on the studio – indeed it is often created there – but classical music arrives at the studio door already fully formed. I think this may be why I have heard many a classical musician implicitly describe the recording process as one primarily of getting all the right notes in all the right places. After all, what else is there left to do? Yes, they are interested in all the other important things too – character, energy, beauty and so on – but these are all servants dancing to the tune of their master: accuracy.

There are good reasons for this, or so the argument goes:

A recording has to survive repeated listenings. That wrong note in bar ten might not be particularly troublesome when we first hear it, but after ten replays, it becomes intensely irritating.

With no visual component, inaccuracy of any kind seems worse. When we watch as well as listen, these moments don't seem so bad. So we have to compensate for this.

Our players will be judged not only by the public but, more seriously, by their peers. So the record producer must look after them and protect them from criticism.

I don't disagree with any of that, but I worry that it creates a dangerous approach to working in the studio. Once one becomes concerned only with the notes, then character, energy, and beauty will crawl under the stone of accuracy.

I sometimes doubt my own beliefs about this. I came away from these recordings of Ysaÿe's solo violin sonatas wondering if our approach of barely discussing the notes at all was really the right thing to do. It certainly feels risky. The recording environment is more usually one of walking a tightrope with a safety net, but Tom and I took the net away. I think there were moments where neither of us felt comfortable about it. All we could do was trust the method without entirely understanding it.

It is not until you leave the recording studio and subsequently enter the edit suite where you know if you have done the right thing. And I always get the same answer. Certain takes which were the result of discussions about notes (and yes, there were a few) consistently pale into... well, if not insignificance then a certain lack of gravitas. Compared with those takes where Tom tapped into a higher level of performance, free from the concerns of accuracy, the more “mindful” ones inevitably ended up on the cutting room floor. I have been doing this for 30 years, and it is almost always the same story.

I say almost. Those “mindful” takes can have their uses. They can act as rehearsals. They can cleanse the mind of the need for accuracy. And very occasionally, they do end up in the recording! One of the great mysteries of recording is that you never know quite what you will get, when you will get it, or how it is achieved. Beginning a recording session is like starting to write a novel without knowing how it will end. An approach that is both thrilling and frustrating in equal measure, but that's how books are so often written. And yes, sometimes they don't get finished. A risky strategy indeed.

I even think discussing the method is in itself a dangerous thing – notwithstanding the fact that I am doing it now. We all know what happens when we are told "don't think of an elephant." As in the world of quantum physics, to examine something is to change it. The real thrill for me about a recording session is to ask myself this: "I wonder what will happen today?"

— Stephen Frost

Tony HarrisonThe Ysaÿe Sonatas are about friendship as much as anything else. A touching aspect of his opus 27 is his drawing close the qualities in other violinists that he loved.

And it was a great friend who first got me really interested in Ysaÿe the composer. Tony Harrison was starting to gain a reputation as a producer with an approach that went far beyond industry standard techniques when I started to get to know him. He kept on urging me to investigate the man and his music more thoroughly. This recording of the Sonatas then, made so many years later, has got the emblem of our friendship running right through it.

For a while we lost touch in the way that life moves but I was so thrilled that after many years we did finally make a recording together in 2009 with the Walton and Barber concertos. But that was as far as the partnership went as far as tangible results went; shortly after those sessions Tony was diagnosed with a very aggressive lung cancer which after a short reprieve killed him two years later.

The recording of Ysaÿe's extraordinary short work for divided upper strings – violins and violas only – was made only in two takes as I remember, but way back in 1995.  It was a sort of “let’s do the Ysaÿe if we have time” thing after recording Stephen Frost’s oboe concerto across two days, with a freelance band of fine London string players and Tony conducting. With time running out we just had time to do two takes of Exil. I was in the concertmaster’s chair. I felt at the time that Tony had indeed made a great case for the piece but did not expect anything to come of it. It wasn’t given any real attention until he was under sentence of death when he edited it. I well remember him playing me the finished version from his sick bed after many hours of energy sapping work. I was amazed. He was both very proud and rather frustrated – as so little material was there to work with – but he was determined to bring the thing to a finished state. Finishing Exil had become almost an obsession over the last few months allowed him in this life. Those of us lucky enough to be influenced by his ideas and magical abilities can at least listen to this and remember him. Those who never met him will, I hope, hear something of the inspirational presence he was.

— Thomas Bowes

I remember the Exil recording sessions as if they were yesterday. In fact it was July 24, 1995. The sessions, however, were not really for Exil – which was to be an add-on, if there were time – but for my Oboe Concerto. This was a big deal for both of us. We were funding it ourselves, with no promise of a label taking it. Nobody knew who we were, Tony Harrison as a conductor and me as a composer, so this was our attempt to move forward into those worlds. The project was enormously stressful, so much so that I completely lost my voice on the first day of recording – not ideal for my first foray into producing. But then I think I was grateful for one so wet behind the ears to have an excuse to be unable to intervene. It was entirely typical of Tony to put his trust in someone so inexperienced as me.

He had done the same a few years earlier when he introduced me to the world of classical music editing, something I was barely aware existed at all. He gave me editing projects that I had no right at that stage to be working on, but he guided me, enthused me, and on more than one occasion saved me from myself. He taught me not just the technical side of editing, but the musical one. Indeed, I quickly learned from him that the musical aspect of editing was, in the end, the only aspect. He showed me that if you go about it in the right way, you can create something that does not feel like a recording but instead much more like a concert, except even better. You really could have the best of both worlds. But the key to all of this, actually, was not so much in the editing but in the producing. In other words you had to generate the right kind of material in order to edit it with this mindset. I have written elsewhere about this approach – all I need to say here is that it all came from my friend and mentor, Tony Harrison.

The Oboe Concerto sessions were difficult. There was not enough time (is there ever?!) and the music was harder than it sounded. Nevertheless somehow we finished with half an hour to go; perhaps we had simply had enough, I think everyone was tired and would have happily called it a day. How lucky I think we are now that we didn't. There was just time to play Exil twice, so, despite our collective lack of energy, that is what we did. Because the piece is for upper strings only, we decided that the orchestra would stand. Even before a note was played, there was a sense that something different was about to happen. Sitting in the control room with my lost voice, like a lost child, I heard the opening few bars and knew immediately that something special was happening. I remember the goosebumps, a feeling of connection, and of elevation.

I know now that in this beginning there was also the sense of an end. From time to time Tony conducted again – there was a remarkable concert he gave with the Norwegian Radio Orchestra – but a career in the notoriously difficult world of conducting was not to be. My composing, too, changed direction and finally morphed into film-making. But we continued to work together in the recording industry, fighting ever-diminishing budgets and schedules, thus making it ever harder to work in the way we wanted.

Sometimes, in the studio, or in the edit suite, there are moments where I doubt my methods, lose confidence, and question my abilities and motives. So I ask Tony what he would do. Of course, he is not there to answer. But then that is the best gift a friend can give you – to be able to answer that question yourself.

— Stephen Frost