Eugène YSAŸE (1858–1931) Ysaye: String Trios
Trio for two violins and viola* (1914-16) [38:23]
Premier Trio de Concert (en une partie) for violin, viola and cello (1927) [17:21]
2ème Trio for violin, viola and cello (1927) [14:12]
Tor Johan Bøen (violin)
Anders Nilsson (violin)*
Are Sandbakken (viola)*
Juliet Jopling (viola)
Johannes Martens (cello)
rec. Ris Church, Oslo 6-8 October 2007; 29-31 March 2008
SIMAX PSC 1295 [69:56]

The Simax label has something of a coup here, with première recordings of three chamber works by the renowned violinist and composer Eugène Ysaÿe. Probably best known for his Six Sonatas for Solo Violin Op.27, a top recording of which can be found on this same label (see review), Ysaÿe is known to have been modest about his compositional work. The resulting neglect has partially been due to several manuscripts requiring considerable work to turn them into accurate and performable editions, and this is exactly what violinist Tor Johan Bøen has done for the pieces on this CD.

The Trio for two violins and viola was written in London, where Ysaÿe lived during the early part of World War I. The booklet notes detail historical records and recollections of Ysaÿe’s constant changes and revisions, and in the end only the first two movements of this substantial work were apparently performed, as work on the third movement was left unfinished. This is a remarkable piece, striking in its intensity and a demanding listen. This is due not only to the work’s sheer scale, but because of the tightly wrought nature of the musical arguments and the relative closeness of the instruments’ sonorities. The second movement Allegretto Poco Lento initially provides a central oasis of open melodic charm, and each movement has its contrasts of texture, but Ysaÿe’s musical language is further filled with chromatic movement and close harmony. After a hefty unison opening, the melodic shapes and intertwining lines of the opening movement give a compact expression of the idiom for the main material of the piece. Ysaÿe’s work is not an onslaught of complexity however, and there is a fascinating mixture of what for the time would have been considered forward-looking modernity in some quarters, and innocent sounding prayer-like passages which allow the mind to come up for air. Despite quite a mixture of techniques, which range from old-fashioned fugue to some remarkably subtle effects of sonority this piece ‘works’ in a surprisingly natural sounding and organic way.

Very worthwhile but not easy to assimilate in one go, you might think the shorter Premier Trio de Concert (en une partie) and the 2ème Trio both for violin, viola and cello would be an easier ride than the Trio. Written in the same period as the Op.27 solo sonatas, Ysaÿe composed these two trios in the summer of 1927 while on the Belgian coast. They present a different set of sonorities, not merely due to the addition of the cello, but because Ysaÿe’s later musical language presents a more enigmatic musical picture. The landscapes are similar, with at times close harmonies, tightly gripped melodic shapes and the kind of intensity and contrast which keeps you gripped and guessing at the same time. The Premier Trio de Concert (en une partie) was written out in manuscript score, Ysaÿe’s revisions in the manuscript not being transferred to the parts – the first known performance being in 1964. The 2ème Trio was never published, and received its first performance in 2008 with the same forces recorded here not long after. Of the two, the 2ème Trio is perhaps the most startling in its wild opening gestures and flautando effects further on, but both share a family resemblance in terms of their straining at the tonal leash. These are the kinds of works which share the limits of what could be done in what can still be loosely termed conventional tonality, and there are moments in the 2ème Trio which perhaps peer over the precipice, but never quite touch the same realms as Schoenberg’s String Quartet No.3 which emerged in the same year. These are very much pieces of their time, but with strokes of originality which do make them stand out. The muted slow central section from about 4:30 into the 2ème Trio has some stunningly dark moods. If anything Ysaÿe’s trios are closer to Berg if we’re going to stretch the Viennese comparisons, but if you think late-late romantic approaching its mind-popping extremities then you should have some idea of what to expect from these remarkable works.

The recordings are very good indeed – close and detailed, but with enough acoustic information to create a realistic concert atmosphere. The performances are also excellent, though I am marginally less convinced by the coherence through the more extreme technically demanding moments in the latter two works with cello. Fans of Eugène Ysaÿe will find a great deal to get their teeth into with this disc, as will aficionados of the inter-war post-romantic cul de sac which lived on well into the 20th century. Ysaÿe retained a personal identity and eschewed direct competition with international developments. By way of a perspective however, in 1927 Bartók’s 3rd String Quartet and Shostakovich’s Symphony No.2 were emerging, and Stravinsky’s one-man Parisian revolution was already seeking refuge in neo-classicism.

Dominy Clements

Fascinating, intense and complex.… see Full Review