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Eugène YSAŸE (1858-1931)
Six Sonatas for Solo Violin, Op. 27
No.1 in G minor "To Joseph Szigeti" [17:23]
No.2 in A minor "To Jacques Thibaud" [13.27]
No.3 in D minor "To Georges Enesco" [7.32]
No.4 in E minor "To Fritz Kreisler" [11:54]
No.5 in G major "To Mathieu Crickboom" [10:48]
No.6 in E major "To Manuel Quiroga" [7.44]
Masuko Ushioda (violin)
rec. 2-4 November 1993, Art Tower Mito, Japan
FONTEC FOCD3284 [69:40]

It was with great sadness that in May 2013 I learned of the death at age 71 of the violinist Masuko Ushioda. This was after a six month battle with leukaemia.

She has been largely forgotten in the West, but the Japanese have feted her and kept her memory alive with a few sporadic releases. I first became acquainted with her artistry way back in the days of LP – a 1971 recording of the Sibelius and Bruch Violin Concertos with the Japan Philharmonic under Seiji Ozawa (HMV SXLP 30137). The recording resurfaced some years ago on CD, in Japan. Since that initial spark of interest I have been an avid collector of her recordings.

Born 1942 in Shenyang, Manchuria, North-East China, Masuko Ushioda was the daughter of an architect father and choreographer mother. Western music held prominence in her home, and she took up the violin. It was then on to Tokyo to study at the Toho Gakuen School with Anna Ono, who had been a pupil of Leopold Auer, teacher of Elman, Heifetz and Milstein. Whilst there Ushioda fell under the influence of the Japanese conductor and cellist Hideo Saito, who counted amongst his students Seiji Ozawa. From that time on, Ushioda and Ozawa became lifelong friends. The two played important roles in the Saito Kinen Orchestra which was founded to honour Hideo Saito. The young violinist frequently took on the role of concertmaster. She later completed her studies at the St. Petersburg Conservatory with Mikhail Weiman, and in Switzerland with Josef Szigeti. In 1966 she was a silver medallist in the Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow, a win that catapulted her onto the international stage and into a distinguished career. In 1971 she married Laurence Lesser, who studied cello with Gregor Piatigorsky. From 1974 until her untimely death in 2013, she taught at the New England Conservatory in Boston, Massachusetts, where her husband was president from 1983-1996.

Having languished in relative obscurity for many years, Ysaÿe’s Six Sonatas for Solo Violin seem to have benefited from a renewed interest of late, with over twenty versions now listed in the catalogue. Eugène Ysaÿe (1858-1931) was a major figure of the Franco-Belgian school of violin playing. Carl Flesch, in his Memoirs, called him "the most outstanding and individual violinist I have ever heard in my life". Sketched in one day in 1923 and composed within the short space of a few weeks, in a burst of creative energy, the Sonatas are the great Belgian violinist’s tribute to J.S. Bach who established the genre with his six Sonatas and Partitas for solo violin. They were published a year later. Ysaÿe dedicated each of them to one of his younger violinist colleagues, whom he admired. Yet the resulting works do not end at a mere dedication; each reflects the individual musical personality and technical idiosyncrasies of the dedicatee. They are demanding and require a formidable virtuosity, fluency and imaginative flair. They showcase many aspects of violinistic technique including double-stops, harmonics, pizzicato (left and right hand) and special effects such as sul ponticello (on the bridge) bowing, which the composer asks for in the finale of the Second Sonata. The composer, always meticulous in his directions, goes to great lengths in providing scrupulous detail on bowing, phrasing and dynamics and there’s even a rubato indication.

This recording illustrates remarkably the marriage between virtuosity and musicianship. Throughout, Ushioda achieves beauty of sound and a spectacular range of tonal colour. Intonation, so vital in these exposed works, is pristine. Yet, what stands out for me is the precision, drama, daring and imagination the violinist brings to these vividly painted canvases. She is scrupulously faithful to the composer’s markings, yet the readings are never monotonous but always emerge with spontaneity and freshness. Aside from the technical bravura, the lyrical passages are eloquently realized. The opening ‘L’Aurore’ of No. 5 is spellbinding, where you feel enveloped in a world of peace and serenity. In contrast the ‘Danse Rustique’, which follows, is a rhythmically propulsive romp of daredevil bravado. I’ve heard many wonderful recordings of these Sonatas by such violinists as Ricci, Shumsky, Kremer and, more recently, Papavrami, but this Ushioda cycle excites me the most, and will sit proudly at the top of my list of favourites.

Unusually, the Sonatas are not sequenced in order; maybe this is to display the two most exciting and popular ones (6 and 3) at either end. No 6 almost literally grabs you by the scruff of the neck and provides, in a single 7 minute movement, a fitting opener. No. 3, the most well-known, and again a single 7 minute movement, strikes a suitable balance for the end.

Fontec’s sonics are excellent, placing the soloist in a spacious and sympathetically reverberant acoustic. Booklet notes are in Japanese, but English track-listing and timings are provided.

It is admirable that Fontec are keeping Masuko Ushioda’s memory alive with this 1993 recording and a 1996 traversal of the Bach Solo Sonatas and Partitas, her second; an earlier one (1971-2) was issued by EMI Japan in 2013, which unfortunately I haven’t yet heard.

Stephen Greenbank