Thomas Zehetmair’s account of Ysaÿe’s third sonata, presented as a “preface” to Heinz Holliger’s recently released Violin Concerto, a work itself inspired by Ysaÿe, already gave evidence of this outstanding musician’s affinity for the work of the great violinist-composer. Now comes a recording of all six sonatas, which ranks amongst the most exceptional recordings of this demanding repertoire. The Ysaÿe sonatas belong, with Bach’s sonatas and partitas and Paganini’s caprices, to the masterworks of music for unaccompanied violin, and offer a comparable challenge to the interpreter.
Challenges are a way of life for Zehetmair, currently covering a great many bases with skill and verve and commitment. This is the player of whom conductor Simon Rattle has said, “He is maybe the only violinist today able to encompass every style of playing. He is a true child of period style, Romantic temperament and contemporary taste.” One of the earliest modern violinists to take an interest in period performance, he worked with Nikolaus Harnoncourt and Concentus Musicus more than two decades ago, before the boom period for ‘historical performance practise’. Simultaneously, he has always been a passionate advocate of contemporary musical expression.
In the liner notes to the current release, Paul Griffiths writes: “Like Ysaÿe a century before, Thomas Zehetmair established himself as a musician with a personal vision and an inquiring mind, a player of passion and accuracy, an inspiring quartet leader, a conductor who sparks musical excitement even when he is not simultaneously performing as concerto soloist, and a friend of composers (in his case including Holliger and Kurtág). All of this is here, at the point of the bow. He burns himself into the music and disappears”.
In the 2003/4 season, the Austrian violinist received a veritable landslide of classical music awards – the Edison Award, the Gramophone Award, the Prix Caecilia, Diapason d’Or de L’Année and more – for his quartet’s ECM recording of Robert Schumann’s 1st and 3rd string quartets. Gramophone editor James Jolly wrote of “performances crackling with excitement”, a sentiment echoed in magazines and newspapers from the Nouvel Observateur to The Strad. This is a quality characteristic of Zehetmair’s work through the genres and in diverse roles, there is an edge and intensity to his delivery. He is engaged in “vigorous music-making”, as the New York Times has noted, and steers clear of any formulaic approach to performance. To America’s Fanfare magazine he explained that “individuality requires more responsibility to what the composers have written. And it can be acquired by developing a lot of possibilities for expression. It’s not enough to have one distinctive sound. You have to have a lot of different sounds, different vibratos, different ways of making a crescendo … In the end, though, individuality speaks through the soul and the heart.”
As the Zehetmair Quartet, founded in 1994, celebrates its tenth birthday, its leader is also actively engaged on other fronts. His reputation as a conductor, already growing through his work with the Camerata Bern (documented on ECM’s “Verklärte Nacht” recording of Schönberg, Bartók and Veress), and guest appearances with leading orchestras, received increased attention with his appointment as Music Director of England’s Northern Sinfonia.
Meanwhile, a non-stop touring schedule takes him, over the next three months, to Finland, Scotland, the USA, Belgium, France, Sweden, Japan and Italy working variously with the Zehetmair Quartet, Northern Sinfonia, Kremerata Baltica, the London Philharmonic Orchestra, the Cleveland Symphony Orchestra, Orchestra National de Lyon, the Malmö Symphony Orcherstra, the NHK Symphony Orchestra Tokyo, the New Japan Philharmonic, Deutsches Symphonie Orchester, the SWR Orchester Freiburg, and more, with conductors including Heinz Holliger, Kent Nagano, Michael Gielen, Vladimir Jurowsky… Details can be found at www.ecmrecords.com
Eugène Ysaÿe (1858-1931) had been playing the violin for more than 60 years when he wrote his Six Sonatas for Solo Violin in 1923/4, reportedly motivated by a discussion with Joseph Szigeti – following a Bach performance by Szigeti, in which the two violinists pondered the lack of challenging unaccompanied repertoire for their instrument. Few can have been better qualified to provide it than Ysaÿe. Michel Stockhem has written: “To Ysaÿe, virtuosity was indispensable (he admired Paganini and Vieuxtzemps), but as a means to re-create the music, rather than mere exhibitionism.” He was conscious of composing for the future and, in dedicating each of the Six Sonatas to his younger contemporaries Enescu, Kreisler, Thibaud, Szigeti, Quiroga and Crickboom, he helped to lay the groundwork for modern approaches to violin playing. In the sonatas Ysaÿe wrote specifically for each of his dedicatees’ playing styles, offering technical and musical challenges that he felt would spur them to new interpretive discoveries.
Bach is seldom far away in these pieces and the way in which Ysaÿe mediates between 1720 and 1920, peppering the sonatas also with hints of gypsy music, folk fiddling, Brahms and more, “reaching all the far corners of all the registers the violin can possibly explore”, as one critic wrote, calls for great resourcefulness from the player. Paul Griffiths point out, too, that Ysaÿe’s Bach was not “our” Bach, increased musical-historical awareness has changed attitudes towards baroque performance, adding a new set of problems for the player to solve: “The violinist has to cultivate his own aloneness, shut out (or digest) all the advice and warnings in order to pursue his dialogue with the text, performing not as if in the twentieth century, the eighteenth or the twenty-first, but in that never-now where music takes place.” Or, as Zehetmair himself put it in interview with Strings magazine: “Music cannot be played like it is in a museum. You ‘shoot it out’ – it happens in the moment”.
CD package in slipcase includes 34-page 3-language booklet with liner notes by Paul Griffiths.