Passion Ysaˇe
EugŤne YSAüE (1858-1931)
Six Sonatas for Solo Violin, Op. 27 (1924)
No.1 in G minor "To Joseph Szigeti" [13.31]
No.2 in A minor "To Jacques Thibaud" [11.08]
No.3 in D minor "To Georges Enesco" [5.58]
No.4 in E minor "To Fritz Kreisler" [9.34]
No.5 in G major "To Mathieu Crickboom" [8.12]
No.6 in E major "To Manuel Quiroga" [6.13]
Rachel Kolly díAlba (violin)
rec. August 2008, Switzerland.
WARNER CLASSICS 2564 68385-5 [67:38]

Passion is certainly a word you can apply to these recordings, which in terms of timings undercut those of Henning Kraggerud (see review) at times by a remarkably wide margin. Comparing the two recordings, Kolly díAlba is closer to the microphones, providing immediacy and impact, but ultimately a more fatiguing listen than with Kraggerud. His mix is admittedly balanced to accommodate SACD spaciousness, but the comparative effect is the same in plain stereo. This Warner disc is superbly recorded, but does catch every sniff and other inhalation along with the notes.

Iíve had another listen to Kraggerud, and for good measure obtained a copy of the score. A colleague of mine mentioned finding it hard to believe these pieces were being played by a single person before seeing the evidence in music notation, but then, heís a horn player. I was more interested in finding out if my unease about certain aspects of this recording could be given more clarity through a more thorough examination, and as ever this is indeed the case. Rest assured, Rachel Kolly díAlba is a remarkable violinist and these are incredible performances as any good performance of these sonatas must be, but there are one or two warning lights I would put next to this CD.

I may have been rather pre-programmed by Henning Kraggerud, but there can hardly be any denying his poise and refinement in these pieces, and hearing this new recording throws his remarkable achievement into sharp relief. He does sometimes take movements a little under the marked metronome tempo, but the music gains in its communication through making each note and chord sound effectively. Kolly díAlbaís opening to the Sonata No.1, marked Grave, is a little like a barn door being crashed by heavy machinery by comparison. With a higher tempo and superficially more intense approach, we miss clarity in some of those spread chords, and the harmonic intention of the music is weakened as a result. Kraggerudís double-stopping is also more seamless, and in other movements his pizzicati have more tone and substance. There are some other little niggles I have, but I donít want to turn this into a prickly commentary on minuscule detail Ė no performance of these pieces will ever be entirely perfect, and with so much impressive playing on offer it would be churlish to complain. My criticisms where there are any would always be connected with my impression of how the composerís ideas are communicated Ė which in any case will have to be taken as a subjective point of view. The Fugato movement in this sonata is a remarkable piece, but the symptoms of unseemly haste do crop up here from time to time. The moments where the fugue theme appears amongst a decorative harmonic movement in triplets for instance, where other players give themselves more rhythmic license to allow the melodic notes to speak, Kolly díAlba is more determined to maintain the flow as it appears on the page, and makes things sound congested to my ears. There is also a big fermata over the open G string note which launches a run to another G four octaves higher which is ignored. Admittedly there is an ad lib. marking, but I take that to mean longer, allowing the fundamental to resonate, rather than leaping off it as quickly as possible as if your bow was too short to make it to the change of direction two beats later. I wouldnít mention the missed last upper F in bar two of the Allegretto poco scherzoso if it didnít happen twice in the repeated opening section. With the greater space given later on in this movement those spread chords do come through with greater clarity, and you can hear the difference it makes when this kind of material is given sufficient weight.

Kolly díAlba teases more with the little Bach quotes at the beginning of the Sonata No.2, but some of those dramatic phrases are dashed through so quickly that you wonder whatís going on. Itís impressive violin playing, but disorientating musically. Taking the Malinconia movement more compactly perhaps agrees with the Poco Lento marking, but doesnít tug at my tear-ducts in the same way as Kraggerud, whose atmosphere here is rather special. The Sonata No.3 opens with another rising gesture which I feel should end with a sense of crescendo which reaches through the final long note and beyond. Itís a shame this is rather short here, and deflates at the end of the note, an anti-climax rather than a powerful sweep which I believe should end in a slower more intensely sustained bow movement. This Kolly díAlba does more in the opposing downward gesture further on in the introduction, so itís a question of balance and structure as well. The opening of the Sonata No.4 is another where the choice of hearing those swift movements between melody notes as passing ornaments or harmonic events where every note can be heard is also one I donít hear resolved as I would have liked. This kind of thing niggles more at me as there is so much more clarity later on in the piece, and as a result so much more effective communication of the ideas.

I am only skimming the surface here, but all of these little corners of doubt have their echoes elsewhere in these sonatas. Again, my preference for the overtly less passionate but more poised and still electric Kraggerud will be obvious, but the reasons should be objectively apparent even if you donít agree and prefer the Ďpassioní: with Kraggerud you can listen and be left wanting more. He accurately pins down the climax and tonal centre of each movement and gives us structure as well as spectacle. His playing flows with a greater sense of logical sense, allowing the memory to reflect and refer, rather than having the sensation on constantly being on the crest of a precipitate wave. With Kolly díAlba I personally finish feeling a bit roughed-up, and more ready for a cold shower than an encore.

What is it that I do like about this recording? Well, more than you might imagine. The drama in Kolly díAlbaís playing is inescapable, and that Passion Ysaˇe title goes further than mere sales pitch in terms of white-hot expressive emphasis. Kolly díAlba doesnít turn these pieces into stereotype showstoppers despite my moans about the occasional over-swift set of notes or loss of integrity in certain corners. Her performances are not only technically impressive, which is a given but shouldnít by any means be taken for granted, but also in essence true to the spirit of the sonatas. If you want to hear what I mean, turn to Sonata No.5, where Kolly díAlba creates a marvellous atmosphere, responding to every marking in the score to superb effect.

Rachel Kolly díAlba is a special talent of whom we will be hearing more, of this you can be assured. This CD is accompanied by her intelligently written programme notes for each of the sonatas, and despite a few fluffy pictures is a release of substance, restraining from becoming one of those personality promo discs. By way of a summary, my impression of this is that of a young personís recording Ė spectacular and wonderfully impressive, but still erring on the side of toothsome technical show when weighed against memorable musical communication. Thereís that word again, but in the end itís the music which will bring you back time and again, not the player or the violin Ė in this case a 1727 Stradivarius. I would be the last to say that Rachel Kolly díAlbaís recording is lacking in merit or musicality, but I am prepared to bet twenty years worth of compound interest on a fiver that she will be doing it differently when it comes time to pay out.

Dominy Clements