Name an instance of unaccompanied violin music not by Bach or Paganini and most of us will struggle. Unless, that is, we have a special affinity with Belgium, in which case, the half-dozen works which Eugène Ysaÿe produced (1923-24) may have come to our attention. While both Franck and Chausson dedicated their best-known violin compositions to Ysaÿe, even violinists themselves rarely show much interest in his original output. A new recording emerges every few years but swiftly fades from view.
Each movement of these pieces could appropriately bear Liszt’s title: “studies in transcendental execution.” But Liszt seldom discernibly influences the actual music, and anyone who dreads being subjected to a kind of hour-long Flight of the Bumble-Bee has a congenial surprise in store. Most obvious of the music’s features is its severity, suggesting Busoni above all. The printed score’s pages are black with expression marks and bowing indications as well as notes, but the writing never sounds over-ornate. Rather, it remains profound, however energetic. No real portraiture of the dedicatees, all great violinists themselves, appears to have been intended. The Fourth Sonata, inscribed to Kreisler, sounds scarcely less austere than the First, inscribed to Szigeti, though suggestions of Romanian fire are detectable in the Third, written for Enescu.
Even fellow violinists are presumably in awe of Alina Ibragimova. No-one – no, not Heifetz reborn – could make this terrifyingly complex music sound easy. But Ibragimova’s powerful, almost baritonal timbre (suggesting Oistrakh’s) makes it unfailingly expressive, a miracle in itself. The sound quality, with closer microphone placement and a slightly colder acoustic than is usual with Hyperion, never detracts from the wonderful playing. Naturally every violinist will by now have bought this production.
It nevertheless deserves a much wider audience.