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This disc may be rightly regarded as the 'logical' sequel to the somewhat earlier release (Harmonies du soir – MEW1472 reviewed here) that presented other works for strings and orchestra by Eugène Ysaÿe. This one, however, centres on Ysaÿe's poems for violin and orchestra, all but one of which were composed during WW1, hence its inclusion in Musique en Wallonie's 1914-18 series,. This so far comprises a disc with Georges Antoine's chamber music (MEW 1473 reviewed here) and another with works by Joseph Jongen (MEW 1575 reviewed here). We must hope that this series will continue.
Ysaÿe was unquestionably better known as a brilliant violinist rather than as a composer. In fact he composed well before the end of the 19th century but by that time, too, he had problems with his right hand. These caused pains that made his concert activities something of an ordeal. This is probably why he turned to composition with renewed energy and why he favoured shorter poems such as the ones recorded here which he could still play in concert. This quite recent release provides a most welcome opportunity to delve into some little known repertoire. Most of the pieces recorded here are still rarely heard even in their alternative version for violin and piano. As can be seen in the details above, all were composed during World War I, the only exception being Rêve d'enfant Op.14 dating from 1901; opus numbers may indeed be rather misleading at time in Ysaÿe's list of works. This short work was written when the composer was abroad touring and heard about the illness of his son Antoine. Being away he could not do much and thus composed this short piece dedicated “A mon p'tit Antoine”. The piece was fairly well-known in its version for violin and piano and was recorded by Ysaÿe for Columbia; a copy of the Columbia advert is shown in the lavish booklet. Compared to the other poems, Rêve d'enfant is set as a fairly simple cradle song which explains its relative popularity till the present day. Extase – 4ème poème pour violon et orchestre Op.21 is dedicated to Mischa Elman. As might be expected the music is often quite impassioned and alternates calmer episodes with more turbulent ones. As might be expected, too, the solo part is often demanding but not necessarily on technical virtuosity; rather on pure musicality. It also shows that Ysaÿe was fully master of his trade and found technical solutions to attain his ultimate expressive aim. For example the first three minutes of the score are to be played on the fourth string which allows the soloist to move within a compass of just under two octaves producing a remarkable homogeneity of sound. The music is also quite remarkable in its flexibility obtained through constant changes of time signature. As most other poems here the piece is structured as a clear arch-form mounting to an impassioned climax before reverting to an appeased ending. The Divertimento Op.24 — Fantasia for violin and orchestra, as its subtitle has it — was composed at about the same time as Extase Op.21. It is a much freer work as far as its structure is concerned. The music is more capricious, lyrical, technically demanding and at times somewhat grandiloquent. It nevertheless remains a splendid piece of music. Neiges d'antan Op.23 (“The Snows of Yesteryear”), that gives this disc its collective title, was completed in 1914 and is dedicated to the composer's granddaughter Carry. Unlike the other works recorded here it is scored for violin and string orchestra. It is a beautiful, rather nostalgic reverie in which the composer seems to remember the old days; the piece was completed shortly before the outbreak of WW1.
Another pre-WW1 work is the wonderful Chant d'hiver – 3ème poème Op.15 composed in 1902 and dedicated to the composer's wife Louise Bourdau; a photograph in the booklet shows the composer accompanying his wife singing. The composer's son Antoine relates that his father drew the idea of Chant d'hiver from words found in a collection of Walloon verse by Vrindts which again may explain the prevailing nostalgic mood not unlike that of Neiges d'antan; incidentally both works deal with the same time of the year. The music is rather more demanding and again calls for an immaculate technique; just listen to the very end of the piece. Though there is no literary source behind Au rouet – 2ème poème Op.13 (“At the spinning wheel”), there may be some subliminal programme; but which? As the music progresses, it builds up into a more sombre and at times more impassioned mood. Some have suggested that this might have to do with one of his pupils Maud Destanche to whom the work is dedicated and for whom he seems to have had some inclination.
The short Berceuse Op.20 completed in about 1914 is just what its title implies: a song without words scored for small orchestra. However, the music is sometimes more tense than expected and this short work as with most of the others recorded here demonstrates that Ysaÿe's music links between the tradition of, say, César Franck and Impressionism. That said, as a violinist Ysaÿe was not drawn to Debussy's music. As a composer however, he was not always able (willing?) to ostracise Impressionism from his own music-making.
As already mentioned this very fine release is a splendid sequel to Musique en Wallonie's earlier release Harmonies du soir (MEW 1472). The music again bears ample proof that Ysaÿe was a very distinguished composer and that the masterly Solo Violin Sonatas Op.27 (published in 1924), although unquestionably masterpieces, do not give the whole picture.
Both soloists here play with consummate skill and commitment. Jean-Jacques Kantorow - himself a string player - and the Orchestre Philharmonique Royal de Liège support them wholeheartedly. This disc is again presented with a copious booklet enriched with some rare photographs of the composer, his family, Queen Elizabeth of Belgium and Mischa Elman, the dedicatee of Extase.