Eugene Ysaye Solo Violin Sonatas Review

Released 2004.  

BBC Review

The virtuosity is breathtaking, the tuning immaculate, the sense of danger is...

Andrew McGregor 2005

I'm going to make this really simple. If you care about the violin, and value great musicianship, you need this disc.

There, that was easy, wasn't it?

But if you need convincing, let's begin with Thomas Zehetmair. He's an extraordinary fiddle player with a virtuoso technique married to musical mind that won't take anything for granted. Zehetmair seems to find answers where other musicians don't even see questions... then there's the breadth of his musicianship; a fascinating recording of the Beethoven Concerto on period instruments with Frans Brüggen, a spell-binding recent account of Heinz Holliger's Violin Concerto (written for Zehetmair, and also on ECM), and the Zehetmair Quartet's award-winning CD of Schumann String Quartets that was at the top of most critics' lists a couple of years ago. Meanwhile, audiences in the north of England are getting used to Zehetmair the conductor.

The music is by one of the great Belgians, the most complete violinist of his generation, and certainly the most influential, both as a player and a teacher. Eugène Ysayë was passionate about Bach's Solo Sonatas and Partitas, and his own Solo Sonatas are a homage to Bach, haunted by those remarkable early 18th century suites. The first Ysayë Sonata shadows Bach's, and shares the key; the second is literally obsessed with Bach's E major Partita, quoting the opening before slipping into the darker, more dangerous recesses of the musical imagination, quoting the Dies irae. But the other ghost behind Ysayë's Sonatas is another great set of solo violin pieces: Paganini's Caprices... the physical and technical demands Ysayë thrusts on the interpreter are as severe as the musical and emotional challenges of the music.

Zehetmair is equal to every aspect of the Six Sonatas. So much so, that where in previous performances I'd usually be admiring the skill of the interpreter and marvelling at their technical prowess, here I'm being forced to reassess my attitude to Ysayë the composer. The virtuosity is breathtaking, the tuning immaculate, the sense of danger is thrilling...yet it's the beauty and power and daring of the music itself that sears the brain; Zehetmair is absolutely at Ysayë's service.

The spacious recording glows with warmth and glitters with detail, and Paul Griffith's notes are highly enjoyable. It's a disc of the year without a shadow of a doubt, but more than that, I think it's one of the best violin records I've ever heard. Now take me out and shoot me; I used to think I could play the violin...

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