Tianwa Yang’s Ysaÿe Sonatas Are the Best

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YSAŸE: 6 Sonatas for Violin Solo, Op. 27 / Tianwa Yang, violinist / Naxos 8.572995

Eugène Ysaÿe’s six solo violin sonatas, based on Bach’s own Sonatas and Partidas (with a great deal of cross-referencing and a few direct quotes), are considered to be among the most difficult and challenging pieces ever written for the instrument. There are many albums that contain one or two of them, but only a dozen or so of the complete set, among them the highly-regarded versions by Thomas Zehetmair, Tianwa Yang and Hillary Hahn. I approached a new incarnation of them—I won’t say by who so as not to embarrass the artist—with some trepidation, and although I found the new recording good, in some places quite excellent indeed, there were just too many moments within movements or entire movements themselves where something was lacking.

And so I chose to listen to Yang’s critically-acclaimed performances. And you know what? She comes the closest to sounding like Ysaÿe himself, even though he did not record these works.

Ysaÿe himself was noted for having a dark and penetrating tone, but American Columbia, for which he recorded, did a pretty poor job of capturing it. I’ve never been very fond of his records because his sound is too distant for me to properly gauge him. Even Pablo de Sarasate’s primitive 1904 London recordings for G&T capture more violin tone than Ysaÿe’s. Some critics have noted that the violinist was no longer in his prime when he made those records, and this may be true, but there is no real drop-off in technique, only in tone. He sounds thin and undistinguished on his discs.

Above all else, Ysaÿe was essentially a melodist who came across not only in the pieces he chose to record (lots of “Berceuses” and “Serenades”) but his manner of playing them. One of his very few virtuoso recordings was the Wieniawski Mazurka, and although it is fleet it is not geared to dazzle but rather to move the listener’s emotions. My impression of his violinistic prowess was that of a player who grabbed the listener’s attention via style and inflection (he also used a fair amount of portamento) rather than technical acrobatics. This is the opposite of his older rival Sarasate, who zipped off the Bach Prelude in E at a pace that only our modern-day HIP violinists can approach, but who rarely invested his music with deep feeling. Everything Ysaÿe played had feeling, sometimes too much so; he was, in fact, a very sentimental Belgian and wasn’t ashamed of it.

Yang’s tone sounds to me like what Ysaÿe might sound like if he had more favorable recording conditions except for one thing. She uses a very quick, almost minimal vibrato, whereas the sentimental Belgian used a continuous light but very noticeable vibrato, sort of like a lighter version of Fritz Kreisler (who he greatly admired). But tone is only one of the things that arrests your attention in Yang’s performances. They have so much life and lift to them, even in those slow movements where other violinists tend to “coast,” that before you are too far along in the series you suddenly realize that this music has seldom if ever sounded better. A good example is the third movement of the first sonata, marked “Allegretto poco scherzoso: Amabile.” Yang certainly emphasizes the “Amabile” aspect of this music, making it sound as charming and light as any of Kreisler’s Viennese-inspired works for violin. Is this an incorrect interpretation? I don’t think so. Ysaÿe’s own recordings reveal a similar style in playing other music (he never recorded any of his sonatas).

The liner notes tell us that Yang is playing these sonatas on a 1729 Petrus Guarneri, which has a bright, quicksilver tone very similar to what one hears on Ysaÿe’s own records. No matter how lightly she plays on this instrument, the tone never becomes dry or scratchy, as it does on Zehetmair’s recording in soft passages. This consistency of sound, combined with her own imagination as an interpreter, brings our attention fully to the music itself—a late-Romantic reinterpretation of the solo violin sonata as created by Bach. Unlike his model, Ysaÿe doesn’t consistently play a rhythmic bass line against the treble. More often than not, his writing for the instrument remains melody-focused, though there are moments like the second movement of the first sonata where he is clearly channeling Bach’s style.

As this series of sonatas progresses, one is constantly aware of Tang’s energy and intelligence, and this in turn establishes confidence in the listener that she has the measure of the music firmly in her grasp. One commentator on Amazon felt her playing of these works a bit fussy and mannered. I do not. In fact, I would defy that writer to point out to me where she is mannered and fussy. Most of the time I find her so deeply involved in the musical line that the separation of artist and material seems impossible to achieve. The style of playing these sonatas has always been a matter of conjecture since Ysaÿe dedicated each of them to different violinists he admired, such as Joseph Szigeti, Jacques Thibaud, George Enescu and Fritz Kreisler, and let’s face it, they all had very different and distinctive styles! But I feel fairly certain that Ysaÿe knew that future violinists, playing these works, would realize all that since most of them had made records and could thus be HEARD. That is the true value of recording: a chance to hear the styles, phrasing and techniques of solo musicians, singers and conductors long dead. I’ve read somewhere, however, that Ysaÿe, like myself, didn’t think very highly of his own records and thus had little hope that future generations would really know what he sounded like.

A few odd details emerge, like the last movement of the second sonata, where we suddenly hear the motif of the “witches’ Sabbath” from Berlioz’ Symphonie Fantastique. Ysaÿe liked to push the envelope and live dangerously, and these late works of his (the set was published in 1924, seven years before his death) abound with technical and musical marvels. It was Szigeti who pointed out that Ysaÿe lived “dangerously in matters of fingering.” This was undoubtedly the feature of his own playing that critics found reminiscent of the descriptions of Paganini, who of course they never heard. A great example of his “dangerous” technique, replete with double-stops, can be heard in the highly virtuosic third sonata, less than eight minutes long but a real firecracker. Then there is the first movement of the fifth sonata, a strange piece, more meditative than usual and almost Oriental-sounding with occasional virtuosic outbursts. Yang plays this as well or better than I’ve ever heard it, tying the disparate sections together seamlessly.

Indeed, she plays all this music like an expert gymnast showing the wannabes how to flip on the balance beam and land on one foot as if in their sleep. She maintains poise regardless of speed or difficulty. I’m sure that getting these works under her fingers took hours and hours of practice, but her smooth delivery keeps the “yes, but” factor out of the way. She exudes a command bordering on relaxation, even in the trickiest passages, yet her emotional ties to the music are always at or near a white heat. Thus does she present us with these six crown jewels as if she were offering us a piece of her own soul.

Highly recommended. This is a six-fish recording!

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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