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Eugčne YSAźE (1858 – 1931)
Sonata in A minor for Two Violins Op. posth.1,2 (1915) [30:29]
String Trio ‘Le Chimay’ Op. posth1,3,4 (1927) [17:54]
Sonata for Solo Cello Op.284 (1923) [12:14]
Henning Kraggerud (violin1); Bĺrd Monsen (violin2); Lars Anders Tomter (viola3); Ole-Eirik Ree (cello4)
rec. Lindemansalen, Norwegian Academy of Music, Oslo, Norway, 18-22 December 2007
NAXOS 8.570977 [61:02]


Experience Classicsonline

This is a powerhouse disc of some powerhouse music. If Ysa˙e is remembered today as a composer it is almost exclusively for his remarkable cycle of six solo violin sonatas. Nowhere on this disc does it say that these are first recordings so I must assume they are not but certainly I had not encountered any of this music before. I find it hard to believe that it could find finer or more dedicated advocates than this group of four stellar Norwegian players who perform with marvellous technical address, conviction, musicality and no little passion.
These three works are all big and serious compositions. For my taste, all too often the violin duet format can result in sequences of acrobatic technical displays which can be passingly entertaining but offer little meat for repeated listening. The big thirty minute Sonata in A minor for Two Violins which opens this disc could not be further from this description. The technical demands on the players are huge but they are always at the service of the music. Ysa˙e refuses to let the presence of only two essentially homophonic instruments limit his musical argument. The players are equal partners throughout with multiple stopping and complex polyphony the order of the day. Stylistically it is hard to place. Written in 1915 – some eight or so years before the solo sonatas mentioned above it has absorbed many of the modernistic traits of its time while remaining steadfastly tonal. I would agree with the players – who have collaborated to write the liner notes – when they say “the work is full of modal chords, late-romantic chromaticism, impressionistic and expressionistic traits”. If I were to level a criticism at all at the work it is precisely that it veers between styles and lacks the economy of utterance that makes the solo sonatas such extraordinary works. But that really is a po-faced response to a work full of so many lush delights. Kraggerud and Monsen are quite superb – their violins superbly matched tonally, technically peerless and creating an aural illusion of many more players than the two of them – try the last three minutes of the work as it builds towards a delirious climax – a terrifying complex of chordal passage work and double stopping produces a glorious Zemlinsky-like texture. If you enjoy the sensual neurotic world of the early Second Viennese School this will be for you.
The String Trio ‘Le Chimay’ that follows is immediately a terser work – ironically given that it has more instruments. The introduction of a bass and middle voice to the texture by definition widens the tonal range. But the musical writing is far more searching, ill at ease at times. This was written some twelve years after the earlier sonata and shows how far Ysa˙e had come as a composer. Again I hear Korngold and Zemlinsky quite clearly. Although tonal the tonality is exceptionally fluid. Kraggerud is joined by the brilliant Lars Anders Tomter on viola (most collectors will know him from his beautiful version of the Walton Viola Concerto on Naxos) and the rich glorious cello playing of Ole-Eirik Ree. Again the quality of the chamber playing is quite first rate – listen from 5:45 how Kraggerud plays a sinuous plaintive solo line that slowly builds as the other instruments enter – Tomter’s viola singing a sad song from 6:11 – the internal balancing of the instruments superbly achieved. The recording should be mentioned here – detailed but not overly close, rich and warm allowing the expressive nature of the music to register. I like the way all the players enjoy the quieter dynamics – never forcing the tone, it allows the many half-lights and shadowed passages in the music to make their full impact.
Great care has been taken with all the works presented to ensure that manuscripts and original scores were used to eliminate as many textual errors as possible and this is symptomatic of the care and attention to detail that has been lavished on this disc – bargain price perhaps but premium price musical values throughout. Having been so fulsome in my praise to this point it might surprise readers that the highlight of this disc for me was actually the final work – the Sonata for Solo Cello Op.28. My perception of the repertoire for solo cello (forgive me if I’m wrong here – I’m a violinist after all!) is that aside from the Bach Suites there is not as much solo repertoire as there is for violin. Assuming that to be true it makes this work all the more significant. Interestingly it dates from exactly the same time as the solo violin sonatas but in the main it inhabits a different musical world - indeed it seems to be paying an indirect debt to those very same Bach compositions being a less impulsive, less overtly dramatic piece than the violin sonatas. The shortest work on the disc running to just twelve minutes it is in four separate movements. But you should not mistake brevity for levity – this is quite brilliant in the terse concentration of its utterance. I particularly liked the opening – again being struck by the rich dark tone Ole-Eirik Ree produces – as well as the brief one and a half minute slow movement In modo di recitative (track 7) – much of this latter movement in the lower register of the cello and again the way Ree is willing to project a thinned-away tone absolutely makes the most of this strange, elusive and questioning music.
Great credit to Naxos for releasing a disc which by definition is never going to leap off the shelves in its thousands yet provides curious collectors with a superb introduction to the chamber music of this still undervalued composer who is so much more than just a purveyor of violinistic virtuosity. More please.

Nick Barnard



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