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Reflections
Pierre BOULEZ (b.1925)
Anthèmes pour violin seul [8:35]
Eugène YSAŸE (1858-1931)
Solo Violin Sonata in A minor, Op. 27, No.2 [12:26]
Solo Violin Sonata in E minor, Op. 27, No.4 [11:06]
Salvatore SCIARRINO (b.1947)
6 Capricci [22:57]
Jörg WIDMANN (b.1973)
Études I-III [19:55]
Carolin Widmann (violin)
rec. 4-5 December 2004, 20-21 February 2006, Studio Mechernich-Floisdorf, German
HÄNSSLER PROFIL PH14036 [75:06]

Music for solo violin is still mainly associated with Bach in the eighteenth century and Paganini in the nineteenth. Carolin Widmann, the distinguished German violinist, here provides a varied and vivid survey of such music from the twentieth century, from Ysaÿe in the 1920s to Jörg Widmann (her composer brother) at the turn of the millennium. There is nothing at all in the CD booklet about any of these pieces, though they are unlikely to be at all familiar to most collectors. I describe them below, partly because you need this information for a proper appreciation of the range of what is on offer on this disc, and partly in hope that it might pique your curiosity.

Ysaÿe’s Six sonatas for solo violin, Op. 27, were written in 1923. Each one is dedicated to one of his contemporary violinists, No. 2 to Jacques Thibaud, and No. 4 to Fritz Kreisler. If that was a shrewd way to encourage world-class performances, one hopes it worked, for they are fine works and by no means unworthy of their Bachian inheritance. Indeed No. 2 actually opens with some Bach, the famously arresting first phrase of the E minor partita, no less. However, it is the plainchant Dies Irae that informs much of the work, including the noble variations of the Sarabande. Sonata No. 4 is hardly less compelling, and both are very well played indeed.

If those sonatas are a homage to Bach, then another set of six, the Sei Capricci (1976) of Salvatore Sciarrino, pay homage to the 24 Caprices of his compatriot and forbear Niccolo Paganini. Each capriccio uses almost entirely the least substantial of all string sounds - harmonics. This includes some harmonics that – apparently – do not exist, since they do not lie on any of the nodes along the string that produce the overtones. They are notated and attempted nonetheless, and the sonic result is part of the soundscape. This near exclusive use of harmonics – normally an occasional coloristic effect – means every piece is filled with ethereal, whistling wisps of sound, evoking a world of shadows, as if some revenant from the great days of Ysaÿe and his dedicatees was playing for us, but his spectral status meant he could produce only a disembodied sound. Eerie it might be, but Widmann’s performance again makes us forget the incredible technical demands this music must make on the performer.

Pierre Boulez’s Anthèmes was commissioned for the 1991 Yehudi Menuhin Violin Competition. The title is a hybrid of the French thèmes (themes) and the English "anthem". The four pages of score (free to download) employ a formidable-looking range of tempi (lent to rapide), expression marks (calme, agité, brusque), dynamics (pppp -fff) and very frequent metrical changes, all punctuated by frequent long trills and glissandi. Widmann manages to observe all this scrupulously, and in so doing, show us that it is a fine piece, by no means as challenging to listen to as it must be to play. Small wonder it is one of those pieces Boulez - as so often - expanded and developed further, as Anthèmes 2 for violin and live electronics.

Jörg Widmann's solo violin Études I-III are autonomous concert pieces — premiered separately in 1995, 2001 and 2003. The composer wrote of them: “‘Étude' is taken literally here as a compositional exercise … but also as a violinistic study on a certain playing technique: for example, I is some sort of 'sounding out' of the instrument's resonance possibilities, II goes on a journey from a three-part chorale to spirited, unbridled virtuosity, and III is mainly a left-hand étude.' He, perhaps mischievously, does not remark on the element that will strike most listeners to Etude II – one line of the three-part chorale he mentions is for the violinist’s wordless voice. One would like to know what Isabelle Faust — dedicatee and first performer — made of that when she first encountered it, let alone its first audience at the 1995 Cheltenham Festival. The effect is certainly evocative here. Presumably we can take for granted the authenticity of the performance by the composer’s sister and dedicatee and first performer of Étude III, who even contributed the recommended fingering to the score. By the way, Schott’s website has this helpful note for prospective purchasers of the score “Difficulty: Very Difficult”. The only possible criticism of the performer on this CD is that she never makes it sound like that.

Ysaÿe once wrote that a performer on his instrument "must be a violinist, a thinker, a poet, a human being, he must have known hope, love, passion and despair, he must have run the gamut of the emotions in order to express them all in his playing." I have no idea if Carolin Widmann has experienced all that in her life to date, but surely Ysaÿe would have applauded such virtuosity and expressive range – the playing is often frankly sensational. This recording was first published in 2006 on Telos, and won an award in Germany. It was Widmann’s debut disc, and as a solo violin calling card from a young player it recalls Perlman’s EMI Paganini Caprices from 1972. Its reissue is greatly to be celebrated.

Roy Westbrook