Graffin Discovers a New Ysaÿe Sonata

cover-AV2399

WP 2019 - 2FIDDLER’S BLUES / YSAŸE: Solo Violin Sonata, Op. 27b. Petite Fantaisie Romantique. RAVEL: Violin Sonata No. 2. Berceuse sur le nom de Gabriel Fauré. DEBUSSY (arr. Matthews-Graffin): Clair de lune. ENESCU: Violin Sonata No. 3. Hora Unirii / Philippe Graffin, vln; Claire Désert, pno / Avie AV2399

This CD is clearly an important release, if for no other reason than that violinist Philippe Graffin has discovered, and here recorded, a hitherto unknown solo violin sonata by Eugen Ysaÿe to complement the six published ones. Here is his description in the booklet of his discovery:

The “Sonate posthume” was a very unexpected discovery. It seems that none of Ysaye’s students knew about it. Interesting, considering that it was his students who actually premiered each of the Op.27 solo sonatas.

What I found was not merely sketches but an actual first draft – very clear and well worked out. There are two questions that now puzzle me. Firstly, why did Ysaye abandon it, as he had almost completed its last movement? Secondly, how could this work have lain forgotten for so long in a sketch book passed between violinists? I guess the first question could be an answer for the second.

But, to speculate on the first question, it seems probable that the question of key was important for Ysaÿe, as some scribble on the corner of a page nearby in the sketch book seems to suggest a key comparison with Bach’s sonatas and partitas, and therefore could be our first clue. Bach ends his cycle with his Third Partita written in the ever-brilliant key of E major, and so does Ysaÿe in his published Sixth. I finished the piece in the most “Ysaÿe”-esque way I could, and I am proud to say that most of what you hear is still really by Ysaÿe. I do not know why this work has remained hidden for so long, but it is all the more amazing to discover it today, as if it were a message in a bottle sent across time.

My guess is that it was unknown and unpublished because it was incomplete, and thus the composer didn’t want even his pupils to know about it unless it was finished.

But there is, I think, another clue to this work that Graffin seems to have overlooked. Whereas the other six sonatas for solo violin are fairly modern-sounding, somewhat austere works (albeit ones based to a large extent on Bach’s solo violin sonatas and partitas), this one starts out, incredibly enough, with a sweet, soaring melody that sounds EXACTLY like something Fritz Kreisler would have played (and loved playing)! You can’t miss it; well, at least I can’t, since I have been intimately familiar with Kreisler’s style and sound-world since I was a young teen and bought that old RCA Victrola LP of his early electrical recordings of his favorite “chestnuts.” This mood continues even into the second movement, and the third, which leads me to believe that, whether commissioned by Kreisler or intended as a gift, this specific sonata was written for the famous Viennese fiddler as a form of homage. Kreisler and Ysaÿe were not, to the best of my knowledge, really close friends, but they certainly knew and greatly admired each other, and if one is familiar with some of Ysaÿe’s own rare recordings for Columbia, their styles were not terribly dissimilar. Both had a rich tone with constant use of vibrato, both phrased expansively, and both used more portamento than any violinist today does even when playing either of their works (see my comments regarding the many Kreisler wannabes in my review of Vol. 8 of that violinist’s recordings on my blog).

Another clue that convinced me this was intended as a separate sonata is its brevity. The whole thing is only nine minutes and 18 seconds long, much shorter than any of the six published sonatas. Although the third and last movement has a great deal of flash, including a dazzling downward pizzicato passage, none of it is outside of Kreisler’s technical range. Like James Ehnes before him, Graffin does a pretty good job emulating Kreisler’s style but, as usual, omits the portamento that both violinist-composers indulged in. Graffin states that in the manuscript he discovered at the Brussels Conservatoire, Ysaÿe dedicated it to Manuel Quiroga (1892-1961), whose career was cut short in 1937 due to a traffic accident, but on the title page only which describes the work as the Sixth Sonata—the completed and published one actually dedicated to Quiroga, clearly not the music that followed that title page. Interestingly, Quiroga’s idol was neither Ysaÿe nor Heifetz, but Kreisler, and the Viennese violinist’s musical fingerprints are all over this score.

In the famous Ravel Sonata No. 2, Graffin plays in a more French and less Viennese style, yet his tone is clearly a bit richer than that of most French violinists who preceded him (e.g., Jacques Thibaud, Henry Merckel, Daniel Guilet, etc.). I liked the performance and admit that Graffin pays close attention to most of its most salient details, but in places I found it slightly rushed. Not necessarily in the famous “Blues” movement, however; here, Graffin is spot-on, as was Ravel himself, one of the very few foreign composers who bothered to come to America and go out of his way to hear authentic jazz and blues music in person, in Chicago and New York. I did feel, however, that pianist Claire Désert could have played the rhythms a little looser than she does. They come across a here a bit too much like ragtime in places.

This transcription of Debussy’s famous Clair de lune was first created by composer David Matthews at Graffin’s request, but he found the transcription unplayable on the violin and so had to rewrite the whole thing himself. Graffin states in the liner notes that the finished product resembles a piece by Ysaÿe.

Ysaÿe’s Petite Fantaisie Romantique from 1901 is another unpublished work, though really a trifle written for one of his sons. His children also knew this piece as Chantarelle, the name of Ysaÿe’s house.

The Enescu Violin Sonata No. 3 is clearly the meatiest piece on this disc, one of the composer’s most famous and well-liked works, based on Romanian folk tunes. My favorite recording is the one that Enescu himself made with Dinu Lipatti, but the Yehudi and Hephzibah Menuhin version is also quite good (Menuhin studied briefly with Enescu and was sort of a protégé of his). That being said, Graffin and Désert do a very nice job on it. Ravel’s Berceuse could also be called a trifle, except that Ravel seldom wrote anything that did not have some intrinsic worth, thus it come across as a delicately-balanced little gem.

We finish our musical journey here with a light but also well-written piece by Enescu, the Hora Unirii. It’s not as dazzling as Dinicu’s famed Hora Staccato but just as delightful to hear and rather more interesting in musical construction.

This is clearly a recording worth getting if only for the unpublished Ysaÿe sonata, but as a full program of music it is a delight from start to finish.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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