This is something of an exceptional disc. Especially if you are a collector of virtuoso violin music. There is a good case for Eugène Ysaÿe being the most musically interesting of the famed group of violinist-composers from his teacher Vieuxtemps through to Wieniawski, Sarasate and even Paganini amongst others. All of those composers certainly explored the outer limits of violin technique but often at the cost of producing music devoid of all lasting quality. I would suggest that Ysaÿe’s famed set of 6 solo sonatas are alongside the Bach solo works as the most musically rewarding pieces in the repertoire for violin alone.
Ysaÿe’s catalogue is by no means vast but it includes an opera - possibly the only one written with the original libretto in Walloon - as well as chamber music, a couple of orchestral works and a selection of concertante works. But search the current catalogue and once you have stripped away multiple recordings of the solo sonatas and a couple of (gratefully received) chamber music discs from Naxos, very little of substance remains. The label Musique en Wallonie, from which this new disc emanates, has been the most significant supporter in keeping his music alive for inquisitive collectors. This seems to be their third disc after the aforementioned opera and another of orchestral/concertante works. If they match the quality of the music-making on display here I will be seeking them out urgently. But given that this disc features Ysaÿe's works for his ‘own’ instrument the violin, it strikes me that this is the most important collection so far as modern recordings go. There was a relatively old Koch/Swann disc that included the six Poèmes - which I once ordered but never received! - and now commands high secondhand prices. CPO released a collection of concertante works in 2006 - recorded some 7 years earlier than that - which is valuable for having the rare Violin Concerto on it. Rachel Kolly d'Alba included the Rêve and Berceuse recorded here on an excellent collection title French Impressions (also conducted in the main by Jean-Jacques Kantorow). I seem to remember Extase as a coupling on an old Melodiya LP and Aaron Rosand recorded Chant d'hiver on Vox with the worthy but limited Orchestra of Radio Luxembourg, but other than that I am struggling. Which makes a disc bringing together in one place nearly seventy minutes of Ysaÿe’s concertante violin music in brand new recordings especially valuable.
This is not really a disc to be consumed in a single sitting. The works were never intended to be heard ‘en masse’ and there is a certain sameness of style and sensibility which diminishes the impact of individual works if listened to as a sequence. Make no mistake, this is violin playing of the supremest, highest level. This disc is shared between two solo players; Amaury Coeytaux and Svetlin Roussev who have interestingly very distinct violinistic personalities. Both trained in France and hold current posts - according to their websites - as concertmaster and super-soloists of the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France. Both are stunningly fine players. The Bulgarian-born Roussev (a former pupil of the conductor Kantorow) leads off the recital with the fourth Poème, Extase. As directed by the composer, although there is no indication to this effect in the published piano/violin reduction, he plays the opening passages - up until rehearsal letter D on the G string. He is careful to observe the dynamics and the G string tone adds an impressive weight to the sound as well as being completely secure in intonation and evenness of tone production. This is exceptionally fine playing.
Both he and Coeytaux are excellent at catching the sense of fantasy and freedom that is implicit in so much of Ysaÿe's writing. He is often credited with inventing the poème form of work - in essence a compact concertante mood piece. The most famous example of the genre is Chausson’s but that was composed after Ysaÿe's first essay in the form. The other key element to successfully playing Ysaÿe's music is to maintain the importance of the musical line. This is why I consider Ysaÿe a finer composer than many of the other virtuoso performer/composers for violin. The latter sacrifice musical line for virtuoso display. Ysaÿe, no matter how complex and demanding his writing becomes, uses the virtuosity to serve the innate lyricism. Roussev in the opening two works and Coeytaux in the third, Chant d'hiver, are exceptionally in this respect. The closing pages of the Divertimento are brutally hard, with fingered octaves and tenths and complex passagework crowding in on each other, but Roussev is little short of brilliant not just in his technical address but in maintaining the musical coherence of the work too. Roussev plays on the 1710 Stradivarius ‘Camposelice’ which one source on-line says Josef Suk used to play. Certainly it never sounded like it does here if that was indeed the case! For those interested in such things, Coeytaux’s website states that he plays on a 1773 Guadagnini - which sounds absolutely gorgeous too.
If pushed, I would guess that Coeytaux's slightly more held style, with more of a sense of caressing the music, might be closer to Ysaÿe's own performing choices. Certainly in the Chant d'hiver he conveys a more intimate inward mood that suits the music to a tee. I'm still very fond of Aaron Rosand's performance which is Romantic with a capital ‘R’ but it is hard not to hear Coeytaux’s approach as the one with greater poise, greatly helped by the far finer recording and the playing of the accompanying orchestra. For those with an interest in technical aspects of violin playing, Ysaÿe introduces towards the end of this work a sequence where the violin has to play harmonics in chords. Getting fingered harmonics to ‘speak’ is a challenge at the best of times and they are a pig to tune perfectly as well. Having to play chordal harmonics is just sadistic! Suffice to say Coeytaux is magnificent here; as he is in the second poème, Au Rouet. The liner points out the tradition of “spinning wheel” music although it mentions Schubert and Lizst whereas I would guess Saint-Säens might provide inspiration closer to home. This is a very impressive work, again compressing so much music and detail into a relatively brief sub-fourteen minute time-frame. In the liner, it is mentioned that it might be because Ysaÿe suffered from hand cramps and tendonitis that he preferred this shorter concertante form. Whatever the motivation these are excellent works; time and again I'm impressed with the amount of musical ‘meat’ they contain, as opposed to the frothy delights of say Saint-Säens' morceaux and equivalent works.
It is interesting to contrast Kolly d'Alba’s performances of the Rêve and Berceuse at this point. She favours an even freer, slightly breathy tone with portamenti and a very fast tight vibrato. I must admit I rather like that too, although again I find myself wondering if Coeytaux's cooler approach is not even more revealing and apt. Worth mentioning is the contribution of Jean-Jacques Kantorow and his Orchestre Philharmonique de Liège here. Kantorow has moved more onto the conducting podium in recent years. It must help hugely in this style of music which has a feeling of fluid rubato at its heart to have on the stick an artist who fundamentally understands how this music works from the inside as a player. Ysaÿe’s orchestration is effective without ever being overly original but it does require players who allow the ebb and flow to feel natural and spontaneous. The recording is good - perhaps a fraction close at times resulting in the biggest climaxes sounding slightly congested - but overall the detail of the solo writing is well caught.
I like the physical presentation of this disc very much. Musique en Wallonie have made this into in effect a small hard-backed book. The disc is tucked into a clear plastic slip on the inside front cover of the book. The liner is presented in the usual tri-lingual French/English/German plus Dutch as the official language of the Flemish region. The liner essay by Christophe Pirenne is detailed and interesting, but the particular delight of this book is the number of fascinating archive photographs of Ysaÿe as well as reproductions of pages of scores, cartoons and paintings. There is real old-fashioned pleasure to be had in browsing this booklet while listening to the music, right down to the high quality of the glossy paper used to print the book on. Curiously, the book contains no biographical details about the artists at all.
This disc is part of Musique en Wallonie's Collection 14-18 which “aims at drawing a musical picture of the Great War years". I am not quite sure how Ysaÿe fits into that model,since although some of this music does date from the Great War I do not ‘hear’ the conflict in the music. Not that that absence diminishes the interest or value of the works. Indeed, this disc will be on my shortlist for a disc of the year. One of those recordings which open up repertoire and performers that you were previously ignorant about but vastly enriched for now knowing.