Inspired by Bach's sonatas and partitas for solo violin, Eugene Ysaye wrote his six sonatas for solo violin in 1924. Not only are these pieces brilliantly constructed and hugely effective for the instrument (Ysaye was, after all, one of the great violinists of his age), they do indeed develop out of Bach's magnum opus, only that in writing his own set Ysaye has pushed the technical limits of the instrument to previously undreamt-of heights. Besides, they are also obviously products of a more romantic age, as there is often an air of improvisation and romantic passion in the writing.
Four of these sonatas, Nos. 2, 3, 4 and 6, are included in this new EMI recording. They are originally dedicated by the composer to such eminent violinists as Jacques Thibaud, Georges Enesco, Fritz Kreisler and Manuel Quiroga respectively. Here these technically spectacular and spiritually imposing masterpieces have found a magnificent modern advocate in Maxim Vengerov, whose playing, though perhaps different in style to those luminous dedicatees of these works, is technically immaculate and shiningly stylish. The ranges of dynamics and tone colour that the young Russian violinist commands are nothing short of staggering, and when these are put to the service of an intellectually probing, individualistic and yet spontaneous mind, we are hearing something that is really quite exceptional. There is also a sort of intensity and ardour in the performances that is literally breath-taking. More or less the same can be said for the performance of the Sonata in A minor, which actually is a transcription (by Bruce Fox-Lefriche) of the famous D minor Toccata and Fugue for organ, on which some scholars have expressed doubted as to whether the piece indeed came from the hands of JS Bach. Some are of the view that the piece actually began its life as a sonata in A minor for solo violin and Vengerov here plays this re-construction with panache, expression as well as a keen sense of proportion, even though I personally prefer him doing the piece on a modern violin rather than the (stylistically more accurate) baroque instrument that he employs specifically for this track.
Two works by the contemporary Russian composer Rodion Shchedrin are included here. The more substantial one is the Echo Sonata, which Shchedrin wrote in 1985 as a commemorative showpiece for Bach's tercentenary. It is a fiendishly difficult but mostly reflective modern piece with some eerie-sounding soft passages and quotes from Bach's solo pieces. The 15 minute work is not easy to bring off at all, but it is here effortlessly conquered through Vengerov's sovereign bowing and awesome musicianship. The violinist not only negotiates each and every technical hurdle with consummate ease, he also tosses off the notes with great elan and conviction and invests the contrasting sections with much light and shade, which renders the piece even more interesting than it may seem on paper. The recording ends (very appropriately) with the only "live" recording included in this release, a performance of Shchedrin's Balalaika taped from a recital at London's Barbican Hall in 2000. Vengerov delivers this pizzicato piece, dedicated to him by the composer, with aplomb and a disarming sense of humour, which draws much laughter from the audience as well as thunderous applause at the end. In fact, such applause is not out of place at all even in the context of the entire album, for it is difficult to resist from voicing one's strong approval after hearing 66 minutes of such scintillating and supremely musical performances on the solo violin.
These treasurable performances are further enhanced by a good recording quality ¡V Vengerov's violin tone sounds fuller and more beautiful than ever. A triumphant release in every way.