Eugène Ysaÿe: Sonates pour violon solo – Zehetmair (ECM New Series 1835)


Eugène Ysaÿe
Sonates pour violon solo

Thomas Zehetmair violin
Recorded September 2002 at Propstei St. Gerold, Austria
Engineer: Stephan Schellmann
Produced by Manfred Eicher

While I continue to wait—in vain, it seems—for a Thomas Zehetmair redux of Bach’s Sonatas and Partitas for solo violin on ECM, we do have, in this touchstone recording of EugèneYsaÿe’s comparable works for the same, easily one of the most enthralling albums to come from the repertoire in a long while. Composed between 1923 and 1924, Ysaÿe’s constructions emerged from a dearth of provocative solo violin literature to which his contributions were more than ornaments and seem as much predecessors as descendents of Bach (as if Bach had anticipatorily extracted from their less contestable passages a more concentrated form of solitude). If Bach’s is a perfect fruit, gilded by two centuries’ of difference, then Ysaÿe’s is both the soil that feeds it and nourishes its seeds, slumbering beneath a layer of frost in the morning sun.

The Grave of the Sonata No. 1 in G minor opens the set with a calligraphic flourish in reverse, funneling fanciful implications into an originary stroke. From these stirrings one already senses the many layers of historicity at work here. In the Fugato we encounter the sinewy balance of robustness and grace that infuses the performance as a whole, which glides off of Zehetmair’s bow like liquid mercury, those double stops seeming to come from a single string divided, opened rather than paralleled. His flexibility works wonders in the Allegretto, contrasting serrated runs with more amorphous shapes, before unwrapping its sweetest virtuosities in the Finale. This tour de force is on par with any of the Paganini caprices and again showcases the powerful subtleties of Zehetmair’s unparalleled (no pun intended) double stops.

The first movement of the Sonata No. 2 in A minor, appropriately titled “Obsession,” is many things to the Preludio of Bach’s Partita No. 3: fragmentation, recapitulation, homage, and parody, to name a few. Like two galaxies shuffled together, these monumental signatures share more than a few loops and hooks, exhaling nebulae on the muted strings of “Malinconia.” This call from distant shores is an afterlife brought into the continental drift of shadows. A lute-like interlude brings us to the ecstatic exposition that “Les furies,” from which Paul Giger draws (at 0:42) an intertextual marker in Chartres (listen for it in “Crossing”).

This distinct sense of exuberant introversion continues in the Sonata No. 3 in D minor (“Ballade”), the nuances of which we were given a taste alongside Heinz Holliger’s Violinkonzert. Thus do we bridge over into the Sonata No. 4 in E minor, which nods again in Paganini’s direction. Its tripartite structure cradles a languid Sarabande, after which the enthralling Finale—during which there hardly seems a moment when at least two strings are not being engaged—closes the most notoriously demanding piece of the set.

The movements pare down one by one, giving us the diptych of the Sonata No. 5 in G major. Equal parts Debussean ritual and imageless reflection, it concludes in a sensuous dance filled with avian throatedness. So, too, do the flying swoops of the single-movement Sonata No. 6 in E major regale us with songs of clouds and earth alike.

With a tone deferential yet trailblazing, Zehetmair captures and sets free the genetic codes enraptured by and through these sonatas. I cannot imagine a more ideal performer, or more ideal acoustics than the crisp reverberations of Austria’s Propstei St. Gerold. Every finger seems to rotate on its own axis in the grander solar system of Zehetmair’s playing, at the center of which shines the sun of Ysaÿe’s glorious music. Each planet is of such distinct character that as a family they seem to inhabit their own respective universes, meeting only in the aftermath of a binding cataclysm, which necessitates the retelling of their lost cultures. Picking through this referential hall of mirrors, we see exactly what we hear: a spontaneous recreation.

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