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ClassicsOnline Home » YSAYE, E.: String Trio, "Le Chimay" / Sonata for 2 Violins / Cello Sonata (Kraggerud, Monsen, Tomter, Ree)
While Ysaÿe’s Six Solo Violin Sonatas (Naxos 8.555996) remain his best known works, the Belgian virtuoso also composed other pieces which translate his thorough knowledge of the violin’s capabilities into thrilling music. The performance here of his Sonata for Two Violins is based on the composer’s autograph and that of the String Trio draws on the original hand-written parts. For the recording of the Cello Sonata the artist referred to Ysaÿe’s own fingering and bowing instructions. All three works display the composer’s dazzling mastery of technique and instrumental colour.
By David W Moore
American Record Guide
Eugène Ysaÿe (1858–1931)
Sonata for Two Violins • String Trio ‘Le Chimay’ • Cello Sonata
Eugène-Auguste Ysaÿe was born on 16 July 1858, in the Belgian city of Liège. He had his first lessons on the violin from his father, Nicolas-Joseph Isaye, a violinist and conductor, at the age of five. Upon entering the Conservatoire in Liège when he was seven, Ysaÿe studied with
Désiré Heynberg and helped to support himself and his family by playing in local orchestras, one of which was conducted by his father, on tours and at village festivals. In 1872 he resumed his studies in Liège as a pupil of Rodolphe Massart, moving two years later to Brussels, where his principal teacher, in the class of Henri Vieuxtemps, was Henryk Wieniawski. In 1876 he went to Paris, studying there with Vieuxtemps and meeting César Franck and Anton Rubinstein. From 1879 to 1882 Ysaÿe was leader of the Benjamin Bilse Orchestra in Berlin, later to become known as the Berlin Philharmonic orchestra. Despite appearing relatively often as a soloist in addition to his orchestral duties, he nevertheless aspired to engage in a full-time solo career. When Anton Rubinstein managed to release him from his orchestral contract in order to go on tour with him, Norway was in fact one of their destinations. Their preferred repertoire was Edvard Grieg’s sonatas, of which Grieg had only composed two at the time, and during a three-week stay in Bergen he met the great composer, receiving due praise for his playing. There Ysaÿe also played a concert for the Ole Bull Foundation; the great Norwegian violin virtuoso Ole Bull had died only two years earlier, to wide national mourning. According to Ysaÿe himself, the tour of Norway, as well as a tour of Russia, also arranged by Rubinstein, were significant steps towards his development as a violinist of world renown.
The Sonata for Two Violins was composed in 1915 and dedicated to Queen Elisabeth of Belgium. Ysaÿe had close connections with the Belgian Royal family, and particularly the Queen. She was his violin student, and apparently quite skilled as a musician. We do not know whether they ever performed the Sonata in public, or if the Queen was able to play the demanding parts. A version for trio, however, was later reconstructed (the first movement from Ysaÿe’s hand), seemingly a natural choice, considering that the Duo probably is the most orchestral piece ever written for two violins. Frequent use of double stops and multi-layered chords in both parts at times makes it sound more like a string quartet than a duo.
Ysaÿe composed his Sonata for Two Violins in a highly personal style, although one can trace influences from many different styles and composition techniques. The work is full of modal chords, late romantic chromaticism, impressionistic and expressionistic traits. The first movement is the most dramatic and heroic in character, resembling the famous Solo Violin Sonata No.3, ‘Ballade‘, as well as Sonata No. 4, especially the first movement.
The characteristic main motivic strand (a three-note upbeat and its culmination) permeates the movement. It uses more or less traditional sonata form, with a central great fugue that forms the climax. The second movement is more rhapsodic, clearly inspired by French impressionism. A beautiful theme presented at the beginning reappears in different versions throughout the movement. The third movement is similar to a classical rondo in construction. Ysaÿe here combines romantic virtuoso violin techniques with chromatic and expressionistic passages. The edition used for this recording is predominantly the facsimile of Ysaÿe’s autograph (Schott Frères), since the modern printed edition (Ries and Erle) contains a number of inaccuracies (even a few wrong notes).
The 1927 String Trio, Op. posth., ‘Le Chimay‘, so named after the venue of its first performance after the composer‘s death, is a work somewhat neglected, rarely emerging from under the shadow cast by the six famous Solo Violin Sonatas, Op. 27. Whereas the Duo hints at
elements that Ysaÿe further developed in the Sonatas, the String Trio rather continues this maturing process. The series of powerful chord progressions at the end of the Trio, reminiscent of the ending of Solo Sonata No. 3, is only one of numerous examples bearing witness to this
fact. In one continuous movement, the Trio exhibits highly original and compelling worlds of sound, colours and textures. It is difficult to place within a specific musical genre or style, and although evocative of Debussy and Ravel it is arguably not influenced by the so-called impressionistic idiom itself. At times it can resemble early Schoenberg (for example, Verklärte Nacht), though not uniformly adhering to this particularly Germanic late romantic style. Written during a time when tonal music was either abandoned, as in the Second Viennese School, or expanded, as in the work of Richard Strauss, Janáček, Sibelius and Szymanowski among others, it clearly belongs to the latter camp, seemingly stretching tonality to its very limits. It is an exciting testament to an ideal of
expression that sought further to develop tonality and its potential, rather than crucify it (the proponents of tonal music are undoubtedly saddened by the fact that so many twentieth-century schools of composition seemed to disprove or abolish completely this development of music as exemplified by Le Chimay, but, on the other hand, are certainly comforted by the regrets uttered by Schoenberg late in his life for the consequences he saw after having pronounced tonality ‘dead’). For this recording facsimiles of the original handwritten parts, reprinted from the Ysaÿe Edition by Schott Frères, have been the basis of interpretation,
although virtually no dynamic, tempo- and expression-markings exist from the composer. The printed edition available, however, (Ries and Erler, edited by the Gaede Trio) is obviously more readable, but caution should be taken in that the parts, apart from a very small number of mistakes in the score itself, include the editors’ own suggestions for interpretation (as regards tempo, expression, dynamics etc.), making it extremely difficult to inspire alternate interpretations without considerable deletions.
That Ysaÿe, first and foremost a brilliant violinist, would venture to compose an unaccompanied sonata for cello is perhaps not that surprising, since he was allegedly quite accomplished on the instrument himself, as well as sustaining important friendships with a number of cellists, notably Pablo Casals. The work is an especially welcome addition to the pre-avant-garde repertoire for solo cello where it ranks among popular works such as the arguably unsurpassed Suites by Bach, the three Suites by Reger and Britten, and the sonatas by Kodály and Hindemith. Still, Ysaÿe’s contribution is to some extent strangely neglected. Based on craftsmanship, taut musical architecture and idiomatic writing (it does, however, explore unusual and demanding aspects of cello technique, although never outside the realm of playability), it should surely deserve a firm standing within the standard repertoire of today’s cellists. The relatively recent edition of the musical score used in the present recording (G. Henle Verlag) will perhaps be of great interest and assistance to modern cellists. Unlike the other readily available editions, it includes Ysaÿe’s own fingerings and bowing instructions, which are predominantly of a musical character. These, again, are evidence of the composer’s thorough knowledge of the instrument’s capabilities. As his six Solo Violin Sonatas (1923–24) owed much to a lifelong study of Bach’s Sonatas and Partitas, there is strong evidence of the Cello Sonata being additionally influenced by Ysaÿe’s
own solo works for violin. The manuscript dates back to the summer of 1923, around the same time as that of the Solo Violin Sonata No. 2, and shares a similar movement structure to the Solo Violin Sonata No. 1, as well as similarities in thematic-motivic construction with the others. The Cello Sonata, dedicated to Maurice Dambois (1889–1969), cellist in the Eugène Ysaÿe Quartet and Trio, consists of four movements highly concentrated in structure, and strongly related through the use of similar or identical motifs, something especially true for the first movement Grave and the Finale con brio. These outer movements are offset by an especially graceful Intermezzo, followed by a suspenseful introductory In modo di recitativo, setting the stage for the brilliance and polyphonic mastery of the Finale.
Henning Kraggerud, Bård Monsen, Lars Anders Tomter, Ole-Eirik Ree
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