Notes on the music by THOMAS BOWES


"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.”



A few further thoughts on Ysaÿe’s op 27 and Exil


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



A view from the producer's chair: Stephen frost writes


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








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