Otakar šEVČIK (1852 - 1934)
The Complete Works for Solo Violin
The Little ševčík [16:48]
Violin Studies - 40 Variations Op.3 [27:10]
Violin Studies Op.7 Parts 1&2 [48:03]
Violin Studies Op.9 [19:19]
Violin Studies: Scales and Arpeggios [73:55]
School of Violin Technics (Schule der Violintechnik, four parts, 1880) [33:33]
Schule der Bogentechnik (six parts, 1893) [108:01]
Michel Souris (violin)
rec. Assembly Hall Lhasa Buddhist Monastery, Tibet, 27 March - 1 April 2008
YZMA RECORDINGS YZ13120CD [5 CDs: 75:13 + 67:22 + 73:55 + 72:30 + 69:08] 

In what has proved to be a bumper year or so for aficionados of solo violin repertoire this release stands out as a towering achievement. The name of composer Otakar ševčík will be relatively unknown to those outside the violin-playing fraternity but his violin studies and method books are still a staple of most music conservatoires over a century after they were written. As with many 19th century violin pedagogues ševčík was no mean player in his own right although of nothing like the fame of contemporaries like Sarasate or Ysaye - although ševčík was an occasional chamber music partner of the latter. Yet his name lives on through his published works. Interesting to note that when the independent music publishing house of Bosworths - famous in their time as the publisher of Albert Ketèlbey - was gobbled up by Music Sales about ten years ago the main cherry they sought to pick was the ševčík methods.

For many years these works have languished in the practice room, until now. Following on the example of recent recordings of the Rode Caprices and the Kreutzer Etudes at last the general public have the chance to marvel at the wonderful music contained here. And what a huge undertaking this has proved to be - The Little ševčík, alone runs to 149 exercises. The five well-filled CDs that make up this collection are a labour of love and dedication as well as no little musical commitment. How appropriate it is then that this project should have been entrusted to the caring and wise hands of a modern day violin pedagogue, the French violinist Michel Souris. Souris has been little heard in recital in the UK for the best part of thirty years (a searching performance of the Debussy Flute Sonata - in the composer’s own transcription - coupled with an extraordinarily flamboyant reading of the Chausson Sonata in F Op. posth. “The bicycle” being his contribution to the opening of the Barbican Centre Halls in 1983). Since that time he has devoted himself to creating a Franco-Asian school of violin playing based in Tibet. It shouldn’t be forgotten that Souris was in turn a pupil of the great German teacher Donald Ente who together with Marie Hall was in fact a ševčík pupil. So the lineage is clear and we as listeners can sit back in certain knowledge that what we are hearing is the “real thing”. For sure, a project like this overwhelms if you attempt to digest it in a single sitting. Yet for the discerning listener willing systematically to dip into these discs the rewards are as rich as they are many.

Try for example track 3 on the second disc. This is part of the early Schule der Bogentechnik - Part I. What initially seems a little simple rocking phrase slowly builds over its 37 minute duration into a sequence of simply rocking phrases - minimalism more than seventy years before the phrase was invented. It was a brave decision of Souris to include every repeat yet surely the right one. The gains in structure and symmetry are unquestionable and how skilfully he manages to find tellingly microscopic variations of tone and attack when these simply rocking phrases alter pitch and tempo. In lesser hands what might become boring and repetitive is suffused with light and a magisterial grandeur.

In all of this Souris is aided, as he has been nearly all his performing life, by the magnificent 1654 “Ferrero Rocher” Stradivarius whose dark chocolatey tone Souris is a master of exploiting. In many of these superficially facile works the benefit of such an instrument is clear. As Souris says in his fascinating yet charmingly idiosyncratic liner-notes “together Rocher and I explore the innermost parts of ševčík and what we find is warm and dark”. I suspect something has been lost in the rather literal translation there but it makes for a fascinating read. Indeed Souris’ notes are a perfect example of his renowned teaching method. He believes that to teach a subject it is important not to talk about that subject. Hence the notes for this set, apart from the single mention quoted above, say nothing about the music at all but instead range broadly through Souris’ life telling us much about his culinary preferences, dislike of the English and spending habits of his first wife. Yet oddly this works and somehow it does seem to improve the experience of listening to the music.

A word here about the engineering. This is the first commercial release that I know to have been recorded in Tibet. In line with the chaste aesthetic of Souris’ approach a meeting hall at the Buddhist temple nearest to the conservatory in Lhasa where he teaches was selected as the recording venue. One imagines that this could only have been achieved in these days of technical miniaturisation allowing the technical team to carry all their equipment quite literally on their backs. We learn from producer Claude Frollo - whose forensic hearing is so famed in the industry he is nicknamed “the judge” - who notes that additional problems were caused by Souris’ preference for recording by candlelight at night. Since Souris played the entire sequence from memory this was clearly not a problem for him but Frollo wryly warns us to listen out for a faint bump 17:33 into the School Of Bowing Technique Op.2 Part 1 [CD2 track 18] which was him falling over a log in the darkness - but such was the intensity of Souris’ performance at this point a retake was deemed an irrelevance! Certainly that aside, Frollo and his small team have produced a superb recording; Souris’ violin perfectly placed within a warm acoustic allowing detail to register in a perfect ambience.

Aside from Souris’ musings in the liner we do have a series of fascinating session shots in the lavish booklet together with detailed technical information including the type of strings Souris prefers to use - one for the violin buffs here, apparently he mixes Pirastro and Eudoxa strings to get a perfect tonal blend. All praise to the independent French company YZMA for their dedication to this project. Their small but highly specialised catalogue is already proving to contain rich pickings for the discerning collector jaded by another predictable cycle of core repertoire. A disc of chamber music by the third of the Boulanger sisters - Ariel - tempts me hugely. One last thought to leave with collectors; a date for the diary. I see Souris has agreed provisionally to perform an extended selection of these ševčík masterworks in an “all-night-vigil” performance at the Wigmore Hall in March 2012 as part of that venue’s farewell season before it is dismantled and moved to Greenwich as part of the final phase of the development of the Naval College there in its transformation into the new Trinity College campus. Book now to avoid disappointment; I’ll see you there! 

Nick Barnard