YSAŸE Six Sonatas for Solo Violin
Alina Ibragimova has made many fine recordings in recent years, but this solo Ysaÿe disc must count as one of her most memorable achievements. She gives full value to the sonatas’ varied expressive character, their virtuosity, and the imaginative and poetic way Ysaÿe wrote for his instrument. And she makes the music sound quite beautiful: we never feel the medium of unaccompanied violin is at all limiting; the sonatas speak to us unimpeded, without any sense of strain.
Ysaÿe composed the set in 1924, when his illustrious performing career was almost over. He dedicated each of the six to a different colleague among the fraternity of violinists, and we can follow their characteristics through the set – the First Sonata for Joseph Szigeti substantial and serious, and reflecting his prowess as a Bach interpreter; the Third Sonata commemorating the free, romantic style of Enescu, the Sixth Manuel Quiroga’s Spanish heritage, and so on. Ysaÿe sought in all six works to merge the Baroque tradition of solo violin-writing exemplified by Bach with the virtuoso styles of Paganini and Ernst, plus newer ways of writing of his own, leaning towards Impressionism.
At the start of the First Sonata (track 1) we notice Ibragimova’s deliberate, serious approach, characterised by strong dynamic contrasts and a powerful sense of line. The playing here communicates deep emotional involvement; and she’s equally successful in putting over the graceful, amabile character of the contrasting third movement (tr 3).
The Second Sonata, dedicated to Ysaÿe’s close friend Jacques Thibaud, might appear to contradict what we know of the latter’s easy-going nature and graceful playing, suggesting a darker side. The initial skittish quotation from Bach’s Third Partita for Solo Violin is set against obsessive repetitions of the ‘Dies irae’ chant, which continue throughout the sonata. Ibragimova is equally at home in the gentle, muted, melancholic second movement (tr 6) and the finale, ‘Les Furies’, which she attacks with extraordinary gusto (tr 8). Especially memorable here is the reintroduction of ‘Dies irae’ as a barely audible sul ponticello whisper (1'10"), contrasting with fiercely dissonant arpeggios.
With the single-movement Third Sonata, she draws a convincing distinction between the opening in recitative style, done very freely and as though improvised, and the main theme, held at a firm tempo. As the sonata nears its final climax (tr 9, 7'01"), there’s a sense of throwing caution to the wind, accomplished without any loss of tonal quality.
The Fourth Sonata is dedicated to Fritz Kreisler, with more Bachian echoes, as well as a nod to Kreisler’s interest in reviving – or composing in imitation of – more obscure 18th-century composers, with movements entitled Allemande and Sarabande. The first of these has an extremely slow tempo marking, which Ibragimova treats with freedom, allowing the movement’s different facets to come together to make a satisfying narrative. And in the moto perpetuo finale she makes full use of the varied bow strokes indicated (a tribute to Kreisler?), building up once more a cumulative sense of excitement towards the conclusion.
The Fifth Sonata is dedicated to Ysaÿe’s longtime friend and colleague Mathieu Crickboom. Its opening movement, ‘L’aurore’, is an Impressionistic depiction of dawn breaking, which allows Ibragimova to display a fantastic array of the quietest tone colours. She brings infectious rhythmic vitality to the ‘Danse rustique’ that follows.
As well as its Spanish idiom, the Sixth Sonata most clearly shows Ysaÿe as the heir to the great 19th-century virtuoso tradition – he had, after all, been a pupil of Wieniawski and Vieuxtemps. If we think of Ibragimova as a thoughtful, even scholarly player, here she proves herself adept at all the frequent showy tricks. Ysaÿe had a deeper purpose, of course: this piece’s sparkling surface is designed to portray an ardent character, full of extravagant gestures. And not only do the difficulties hold no terrors for Ibragimova, she also, as throughout the disc, gives a strong impression of having fun playing the music.
It seems very sad that none of the dedicatees of the Ysaÿe Sonatas made recordings of them. It may be that though Ysaÿe the great performer and teacher was revered, his compositions were not considered to be significant – it’s only in recent years that a handful of remarkable late chamber works have been unearthed and played. Whatever the reason, the Op 27 sonatas were virtually ignored until the LP era, and then it was individual works, most commonly No 3, that appeared on disc – with fine accounts by Oistrakh, Grumiaux, Rabin and Odnoposoff. Then came the first recordings of the whole set, by Ruggiero Ricci and Oscar Shumsky (whose 1982 performance is particularly commanding).
Since then, dozens of versions have appeared, giving the works the status of classics. Among them, I’ve always admired Leonidas Kavakos’s exceptionally clear, poised account from 1999. Then there’s Thomas Zehetmair, in 2004, playing with magnificent energy and commitment, and a feeling for the music and sense of fantasy that are different from Ibragimova’s but in no way inferior. However, she takes her place now as one of the most distinguished exponents of these fascinating works.