Joshua Bell’s program pays homage to the legendary violinist Eugène Ysaÿe. Born in Liège, Belgium, in 1858, Ysaÿe (ee-SIGH-yeh) studied with Vieuxtemps and Wieniawski, two giants of the Franco-Belgian school, and by the turn of the century he was acknowledged as the greatest violinist in the world. Chausson’s Poème (1896) is dedicated to him, and his Ysaÿe Quartet gave the premiere of Debussy’s Quartet. In April 1895, on his first American tour, Ysaÿe performed a benefit for the Schubert Club Education Fund.
That year, in The Century Magazine, the eminent critic Henry Krehbiel drew a vivid portrait of the man “who bore the burden of so unpronounceable a name”:
“From first to last a a puissant figure; a man of extraordinary physical attributes; a large, sound man; a normal man in appearance, yet singularly engaging because of the expressive mobility of his face. Like no other player that I can recall, he illustrates the intimacy which exists between a violinist and his instrument. He feels much, and the violin is his vehicle of expression. He sets his bow to the strings; the hairs seem to bite them with human purpose; the tone, as faint as a ghostly whisper, or ringing like a martial shout, fills the room, and is saturated with feeling.”
One of Ysaÿe’s pupils was Henri Verbrugghen, the second permanent conductor (1923–31) of the Minneapolis Symphony. Another was Josef Gingold, the legendary teacher of Joshua Bell and many of today’s virtuosi.
Rondo brillant in B minor, D. 895 Franz Schubert (b. Vienna, 1797; d. there, 1828)
The Rondo in B minor was composed in October 1826 for the twenty-year-old violinist Josef Slavík, a Czech virtuoso new to Vienna. It was published the following year as the Rondo brillant, Opus 70. Slavík was an inspiration to Schubert in the last years of the composer’s life. Schubert would compose the Fantasy in C major, D. 934 for him. He was also a friend to Chopin, who wrote: “Slavík fascinates the listener and brings tears into his eyes. He plays like a second Paganini: ninety-six staccato notes in one bow!”
Schubert gives us a two-tempo structure. The violinist struts his stuff immediately, sweeping across two octaves in one stroke. The last two notes of the Andante pose a question. The Rondo theme answers in three distinct tones of voice: playful, then sweet, then boisterous (with Czech flavor). A second theme is announced by soft trumpets. Later, a skipping G-major violin tune is echoed dreamily by the piano. Twice, its development takes daring steps down the tonal stairway. Schubert is popularly portrayed as a great melodist, but it’s his harmony—the way he pivots in mid-phrase to skitter off into a distant key—that fascinates theorists.
Sonata in A Major for Violin and Piano César Franck (b. Liège, 1822; d. Paris, 1890)
Like Ysaÿe, César Franck was born in the Walloon District, the French-speaking Eastern region of what is now Belgium. He established a reputation as a master of improvisation at the renovated Basilica of Ste Clotilde, where he enjoyed a 32-year tenure as organist. From 1872 he also taught at the Paris Conservatoire, where dedicated composers like Chausson, Chabrier, Dukas and d’Indy flocked to his organ studio.
Of all musical wedding presents—and one could cite Wagner’s Siegfried Idyll, Schumann’s Myrthen and Strauss’s Opus 10, which includes the blissful “Morgen”—Franck’s is perhaps the most thoughtful. In it, form and content, art and intention, are thoroughly entwined. The Sonata was presented to Ysaÿe on his marriage to Louise Bourdau de Coutrai on September 28, 1886. Ysaÿe was plainly crazy about his bride. In a letter less than two months after their wedding, on hearing she was pregnant, he wrote:
“A son! A child! From you! From you, my darling wife! Nothing in the world could be to me such a source of joy! Nothing… nothing. I bless you, I cover you with the gratitude of my heart. Imagine, in letting my thoughts wander through the rose garden which this happy news has given me, I find them often coming back to the idea that on my return, when I hold you in my arms, I will think that my son’s arms are also wrapped around my neck.”
As it happened, the child was a boy. They named him Gabriel. The Ysaÿes would have two more sons and two daughters. They would be separated only by Louise’s death in 1924.
The Sonata is of-a-piece, though there are four movements. Franck favored cyclical form, in which themes recur across movements, creating the sense of a circle rather than a hero’s journey. Or as Mark Twain suggested: history doesn’t repeat, but it rhymes.
Schubert Club listeners recently heard Franck’s Sonata in a transcription for cello, and it has been persuasively played on the double bass by Mikyung Sung. Flutists also like to claim the work. But it is emphatically a violin piece, as we shall see.
One must be careful about drawing connections between gender and music, but it seems justified in this case: the way the instruments are used; the way materials relate one to another; the way the work is structured. Follow the clues, and you divine the meaning. (After all, this culture gave us: vive la différence!) The Sonata is a both a testament to a great friendship and a symbol of a great love.
Listen to the first four measures:
After a sweetly entreating chord of the ninth, piano proffers intervals that open like a flower: a third, then a fourth, a fifth, a sixth. In the elegant six-phrase paragraph that follows, the phrases end on weak beats, with so-called “feminine” cadences. The movement is played almost entirely on the upper three strings of the violin.
If the first movement is feminine in nature, the Allegro, which is played fuocoso—with fire, and on the lowest and gutsiest string—is decidedly not. There are three themes. Recitative elements suggest a drama.
In the third movement, there are two themes. One is modal, tonally stable and up-reaching; call it feminine. The other is modulating and dynamic, with downward intervals: masculine, perhaps. Both themes recur in the last movement.
Tension is brilliantly resolved in the finale through the device of a canon at the octave. Piano leads, violin plays exactly the same thing a measure later. This sort of thing doesn’t work with every melody—the line must be carefully devised. But neither is it a spectacular compositional feat; every composer learns the technique. However, this particular use of canon is highly unusual in the chamber music repertoire, especially in the Romantic period, when counterpoint was thought of as an academic skill rather than an expressive device. I’m grateful to Michael Barone for reminding me of Schumann’s Six Studies (in canonic form), Opus 56, pieces of more than academic interest for pedal-piano or organ, which Franck would certainly have known. But what’s important here is not canonic technique itself but its implied meaning: the elegant symbol of two complementary voices speaking as one, two minds in perfect balance, accord in music.
According to Ysaÿe’s son, the violinist received the manuscript of Franck’s Sonata at the wedding reception, telling the guests: “I should like to play it in your presence.” And so he did.
Bach’s Six Sonatas for the clavier with the accompaniment of a violin obbligato date for the most part from his happy years as Capellmeister to the Prince of Anhalt-Cöthen, 1717–1723. In these works, he adapted the trio-sonata texture, in which a continuo bass supports two equal melody instruments, replacing one of them with the keyboardist’s right hand, thereby creating a “trio” for just two players.
Bach’s first biographer Forkel listed them “among Bach’s first masterpieces in this field,” noting “the violin part requires a master. Bach knew the possibilities of that instrument and spared it as little as he did his clavier.” The sonata is cast in church-sonata form: four movements, slow alternating with quick. In its rocking siciliana rhythms, the Largo recalls the aria “Erbarme dich” from the St. Matthew Passion: “Have mercy, my God, for the sake of my tears!” The first Allegro is laid out on expansive lines, beginning with fugal texture, while the second bops jazzily along. The Adagio is a simpler, cantabile melody, played exclusively on the violin’s lower strings to undulating triplet accompaniment.
Sonata No. 3 in D minor for Solo Violin, Opus 27, Ballade Eugène Ysaÿe (1858-1931)
Ysaÿe’s Six Sonatas for Violin Solo were conceived after hearing Joseph Szigeti play a Bach sonata. They were outlined in a single 24-hour period in 1924 and realized in the days following. The pieces are rooted in Bach, but as Michel Stockhem notes in the Henle edition of the sonatas, they are also “a response to everything that had changed in music and violin playing in the meantime (since Bach).” And think how much had changed in two centuries!
Each sonata is dedicated to a younger violinist of another country, and Ysaÿe “set out to adapt [each] to the style of the artist destined to play it.” The first goes to the Hungarian Szigeti, a player of “suave rigor.” Jacques Thibaud, a Frenchman known for “tender lyricism,” receives the second dedication. The “stringent elegance” of Austrian Fritz Kreisler inspired the fourth sonata. No. 5, subtitled Pastorale, is dedicated to Ysaÿe’s student Mathieu Crickboom. And in a reference to Iberia as the Lands End of Europe, the last sonata celebrates the Spanish ardor of Manuel Quiroga. In 2017, Gingold student Philippe Graffin discovered an alternative sixth sonata, which was sketched by Ysaÿe but never completed.
A measure of how music had changed since Bach is the flexibility with which Ysaÿe can treat musical material to depict these personalities. There are internal references to the special repertoire of the respective players, like the salvo from Bach’s famous E-major Partita that opens Sonata No. 2. But many of the references are private or unknown. The sonatas “open new horizons in the history of violin virtuosity,” notes David Oistrakh, one of Ysaÿe’s students. “In them Ysaÿe stands out as the greatest innovator after Paganini, as one who has considerably enriched the technical and expressive potentialities of the instrument, particularly regarding polyphonic writing.” One of my favorite memories from Kilbourn Hall at Eastman School of Music is Charles Castleman’s performance of all six sonatas on a single program. Castleman practically achieved escape velocity.
Sonata No. 3, subtitled Ballade, is the shortest of the set, a single movement comprising a recitative and a snappy dance in triple meter. It is dedicated to the “rhapsodic and spirited” George Enescu. The expansive whole-tone idiom of the opening may refer to his Romanian roots. It also honors his pioneering creative spirit, for Enescu was a composer—and a pianist, and a conductor—as well as a virtuoso.
Caprice d’après l’étude en forme de valse de Saint-Saëns Camille Saint-Saëns (1835–1921), arr. Ysaÿe
Gabriel Fauré called Saint-Saëns “the most complete musician that we have ever possessed.” A piano prodigy, organist at the Madeleine and a founder of the Société nationale, Saint-Saëns lived a long and productive life, leaving such treasures as Danse macabre, the “Organ” Symphony and the crystalline late woodwind sonatas.
One doesn’t think of Saint-Saëns as an composer of études, but he wrote three sets for piano. The last étude of Opus 52 (1877) “in the form of a waltz,” is dedicated to Marie Jaëll (1846-1925), a student of Moscheles and Liszt and the first French pianist to perform all of Beethoven’s sonatas. Her piano method, based on economy of movement, is still in use today.
The Valse is a bit of puff pastry, so light, it seems to float. Where is the main accent? It soon becomes clear that the bass articulates the second measure of a four-measure phrase, while the violin arabesque comes on the first measure. Bonne chance!
Program notes © 2019 by David Evan Thomas
ABOUT ALESSIO BAX
Combining exceptional lyricism and insight with consummate technique, Alessio Bax is without a doubt “among the most remarkable young pianists now before the public” (Gramophone). He catapulted to prominence with First Prize wins at both the Leeds and Hamamatsu International Piano Competitions, and is now a familiar face on five continents, as a recitalist, chamber musician and a concerto soloist who has appeared with more than 100 orchestras, including the London, Royal, and St. Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestras, the Boston, Dallas, Cincinnati, Sydney, and City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestras, and the NHK Symphony in Japan, collaborating with such eminent conductors as Marin Alsop, Vladimir Ashkenazy, Sir Andrew Davis, Sir Simon Rattle, Yuri Temirkanov, and Jaap van Zweden.
This fall brings the release of his eleventh Signum Classics album, Italian Inspirations, whose program is also the vehicle for his solo recital debut at New York’s 92nd Street Y. A further debut follows with the Milwaukee Symphony, where he plays Beethoven’s “Emperor” Concerto. He undertakes Beethoven’s Fourth Concerto and Choral Fantasy with the Santa Barbara Symphony; plays the same composer’s complete works for cello and piano with Paul Watkins, at Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center and on a forthcoming recording; performs trios in Santiago and Rio de Janeiro with Berlin Philharmonic concertmaster Daishin Kashimoto and French horn virtuoso Radovan Vlatković; and embarks on U.S. and European recital tours with superstar violinist Joshua Bell. After headlining the North Carolina Symphony’s season-opening concerts together, Bax and his wife and regular piano partner, Lucille Chung, give duo recitals in New York, New Haven, Atlanta, and Sao Paulo. He rounds out the season with a full summer highlighted by his fourth season as Artistic Director of Tuscany’s Incontri in Terra di Siena festival.
Bax appeared with the Boston and Melbourne Symphonies, both with Sir Andrew Davis, and with the Sydney Symphony, which he led himself from the keyboard. Other 2018-19 highlights include the pianist’s Auckland Philharmonia debut, concerts in Israel, a Japanese tour featuring dates with the Tokyo Symphony, U.S. collaborations with Miguel Harth-Bedoya and Edo de Waart, a high-profile U.S. tour with Berlin Philharmonic principal flutist Emmanuel Pahud, and two solo recitals at Buenos Aires’s Teatro Colón. He was awarded an Avery Fisher Career Grant, the Wolf Chamber Music Award and the Lincoln Center Award.
Bax’s celebrated Signum Classics discography includes Beethoven’s “Hammerklavier” and “Moonlight” Sonatas (a Gramophone “Editor’s Choice”); Beethoven’s “Emperor” Concerto; Bax & Chung; Alessio Bax plays Mozart, recorded with London’s Southbank Sinfonia; Alessio Bax: Scriabin & Mussorgsky (“Recording of the Month and quite possibly of the year” by MusicWeb International); Alessio Bax plays Brahms (a Gramophone “Critics’ Choice”); Bach Transcribed; and Rachmaninov: Preludes & Melodies (an American Record Guide “Critics’ Choice”). On Warner Classics, his Baroque Reflections album was a Gramophone “Editor’s Choice.” He performed Beethoven’s “Hammerklavier” Sonata for Daniel Barenboim in Barenboim on Beethoven: Masterclass, available on DVD from EMI. At age 14, Bax graduated from the conservatory of Bari, Italy. He lives in New York City and joins the piano faculty of Boston’s New England Conservatory in fall 2019.