Saturday, December 23, 2006


There is some mystery in Ysaye’s solo violin sonatas: How come a set of violin works that is impelled by mechanism and exercises filled with space, time and wildness? Maybe the answer lies in Menuhin’s autobiography "Unfinished Journey": Violin has a soul while piano is mechanical. If that is true, then Ysaye’s solo violin works is written not only for virtuosity-proving but also soul-searching.

Ysaye’s violin sonatas show his homage to both Bach and Paganini. But Ysaye’s work is more emotional stirring than Bach’s and broader and darker than that of Paganini, thus it is a work of virtuosity written not for the sake of virtuosity. Moreover, the whole works is laid out in such a way as if it is meant only for violinists obsessed in their solitude: Without doubt, it is technically difficult, but at the same time it gives performers a sense of achievement so special that can only be enjoyed when fiddlers’ body and soul alone fill a barely furnished room with endless practice. Heifetz was reputed for his insistence of practicing scales for at least three hours a day. If that is true, then at least at some moment, those scales may sing his heart. Listeners, even if they are laymen, almost immediately can sense they are eavesdropping on some secrets, therefore also obtain a sense of accomplishment for their acute observation.

Interestingly, Ysaye’s work was inspired by Szigeti’s performance of Bach. (In the end, Ysaye dedicated No. 1 to Szigeti, No. 2 to Thibaud, No. 3 to Enescu and No. 4 to Kreisler.) Szigetti’s characteristic oscillatory vibrato is pronounced during his 1950’s recording, but back to 1920’s he was at the top. However, the violin sonatas seem to be better fit for a more aggressive approach, which can hardly be found from Szigeti. In his later years, Szigeti sounds terse, restrained, sometimes even struggling. If ever there is one requirement for the caliber of the suitable fiddlers, that has to be the superior skills which can disentangle lyricism from thrilling technique as if the latter never poses any challenge.

After listening to Leonidas Kavakos playing Tchaikovsky’s violin concerto last year, I think hardly anyone else are better equipped with what Ysaye demands in the works: the mind-blowing technique, overwhelming passion and an intellectual, almost pedantic attitude toward work analysis. Unfortunately Kavakos’ BIS recording is hard to find. But what Thomas Zehetmair does in his ECM recording is extraordinary. (Zehetmair has ventured not only in his repertoire but also in his roles as a soloist, member of string quartet and conductor). The detail and the dynamics are vividly recorded, but overall it is the mood that spellbinds and intoxicates listeners. In the performance, Ysaye instills his soul into the string and bow while Zehetmair glitters him with power and beauty. Listeners, while close-focused in the mind and resonating in the ear, fall half-mesmerizing half-frenetic, speechless.

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