Brilinsky Plays Ysaÿe’s Sonatas

YSAŸE: 6 Sonatas for Solo Violin / Maxim Brilinsky, vln / Hänssler Classic HC20087

Ukrainian-born violinist Maxim Brilinsky (b. 1985), who has played both second and first violin for the Vienna State Opera Orchestra and, since 2014, first violinist and then concertmaster of the Vienna Philharmonic, here presents his take on the great solo sonatas of Eugène Ysaÿe. Up until I heard this recording, my gold standard has been the Naxos recording by Chinese violinist Tianwa Yang, and with good reason. She not only digs deep into these works emotionally but also plays then with subtle moments of rubato and an exceptionally strong, brilliant tone.

Now, there are two entirely different ways to look at the Ysaÿe sonatas. One is to consider the kind of violinist that Ysaÿe himself was. He was noted for his impeccable fast playing but also for his incredibly sweet tone. You can hear both in his recordings of the last movement of the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto (played as fast as Heifetz did with Toscanini) and the Schubert Ave Maria. But Ysaÿe wrote his violin sonatas not for himself, but for his colleagues: Joseph Szigeti (No. 1), Jacques Thibaud (No. 2), George Enescu (No. 3), Fritz Kreisler (No. 4), Mathieu Crickboom (No. 5) and Manuel Quiroga (No. 6). Although Crickboom wrote several pieces for violin, recordings of his playing do not appear to exist, but we can hear all the others, and of them Quiroga, with his sweet tone, sensuous portamento and brilliant technique, probably came closest to Ysaÿe himself. One should also remember that Ysaÿe never played his sonatas, at least not in public. Perhaps a third consideration is that they were based on the Bach solo violin sonatas and partitas, which were a specialty of Szigeti, but if you listen to Szigeti’s recordings of these works (they are my recommended recordings of them in my Penguin’s Girlfriend’s Guide to Classical Music), you will hear several moments of rubato that are now frowned upon, but which to my mind are what makes these sonatas work.

Brilinsky, being very close in aesthetic viewpoint to the Russian school of violin playing, is thus closer to, say, Heifetz or Oistrakh than to Szigeti. Except for the one-movement third sonata, every movement of each sonata is played faster than Yang; yet, strangely, his performances don’t sound faster. And, I would add, his tone is sweeter than that of Yang, being closer to Oistrakh than to Heifetz (who was actually Lithuanian, but who grew up and studied in Russian with Leopold Auer). In fact, one of the fascinating things about his performances here are that they actually have more variety in their shades of dynamics than Yang, and thus come closer to not only Ysaÿe’s own manner of playing but also to Szigeti’s. I wonder if Brilinsky listened to recordings of both violinists before embarking on this project; the liner notes tell us nothing.

Thus I would say that what Brilinsky does here is to create a fusion of Ysaye’s and Szigeti’s playing styles, and this in itself is fascinating. Indeed, one of the reasons why I think Yang doesn’t sound slower than Brilinsky is because she doesn’t play with as much legato and doesn’t use quite as much contrasts in volume. Her playing is terrifically exciting, no doubt about it, but it is not as well nuanced as Brilinsky’s.

A perfect example—in fact, perhaps the best example—is the opening of Sonata No. 5, titled “L’aurore [The Dawn]…Lento assai.” It would be wrong to suggest that Yang plays this movement brusquely or without feeling; on the contrary, she tries to sound as sensuous as she can; but there is no real suggestion of dawn breaking in her reading. With Brilinsky, you can almost see dawn breaking on the horizon. His sound begins softly and steals up on you, coated in his rich, sensuous tone, and he uses much more varied shades of volume to color his tones. Yang’s performances, then, are those of a great virtuoso, while Brilinsky’s are those of an artist who understands light and shade.

Indeed, as I listened to these performances, I heard things in the music that had never struck me before. To make a terse comparison, Yang gives you a set of brilliant jewels that dazzle the ear but Brilinsky turns those jewels over in a half-light, bringing shade to counteract the brilliance. It may be a matter of taste, I know, but I found myself being caught up in Yang’s playing very intensely while listening to her recording but caught up in Ysaÿe’s music more completely while listening to Brilinsky.

Yet I still like the Yang performances and will probably keep them in my collection; they provide an interesting contrast with Brilinsky, a different “take” on these superb pieces. After all, they only take up one CD anyway, so it’s not as if I’m trying to make room for a two- or three-CD set on my shelf. Nonetheless, if someone were to ask me which recording best typifies the heart of this music, Maxim Brilinsky will be my answer from this point on. If nothing else, he gets closer to Fritz Kreisler’s style in the one sonata (No. 4) devoted to him than Yang does.

I now consider this to be the finest reading of these six sonatas on record, and urge you to acquire the recording for yourself.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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