Sonata for Solo Violin No.1 in G minor
Sonata in A for Violin and Piano
Julia Fischer (violin) & Milana Chernyavska (piano)
Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey
Reviewed: 16 August, 2010
Venue: Cadogan Hall, London
An all-Belgian programme has to be something of a rarity. Eugène Ysaÿe, once described by Carl Flesch as the “most outstanding and individual violinist I have ever heard in my life”, famously gave most of the first performance of César Franck’s Violin Sonata from memory in near total darkness in a museum in Liège after daylight faded and the museum would not permit artificial light. So it was highly appropriate the Franck, the centrepiece of this lunchtime Prom, should have been topped and tailed by Ysaÿe’s own music, his posthumously published Andante forming the substantial encore.
Ysaÿe’s First Sonata for Solo Violin (from a set of six) is a late work dating from the 1920s. Besides being a conscious homage to Bach, even mirroring the key of Bach’s First Sonata for unaccompanied violin, it is also almost a compendium of all that is most technically demanding. Any violinist attempting its 18-minute span has to be prepared to play for much of the time in double-stopping and for the greater part of the second movement fugato the player is required to voice two melodic lines simultaneously; for good measure there are extended sul ponticello passages and the close of the third movement ascends to the stratosphere. Fischer met these challenges head on, transforming by a subtle alchemy what might have otherwise been simply a display into the purest music.
César Franck’s Sonata introduced the Ukrainian pianist Milana Chernyavska. On the evidence of this appearance she is very much more than an accompanist and her partnership with Julia Fischer is clearly one of musical equals. In this music a partnership of equals is de rigueur. Ironically, Julia Fischer must be the only major violinist to play piano with equal facility – she has recently recorded the Grieg Piano Concerto for DVD – and she played the piano in the Franck Sonata before she played the violin part.
This was a glorious performance. It opened very gently as though there were all the time in the world, the sounds hanging almost motionless in the air, yet with the grandest dynamic range from both players, power held in reserve. It was notable that Chernyavska eschewed the usual romantic pianistic haze, producing a cleanly focussed almost demi-sec piano sound with minimal pedal. The second movement Allegro was attacked with ferocity; its quasi lento central section was daringly slow and made the most of the pauses, yet its reprise and final pages packed the most visceral punch. The Bachian ‘Recitativo – Fantasia’ was gentle and remarkably concentrated with an unusually close rapport between violinist and pianist, each listening intently and responding to the other, and found enormous dignity in the Fantasia. The Allegretto finale, for once not rushed but gravely beautiful, hit exactly the right tempo and developed an unstoppable momentum so that when the floodgates finally opened there was an almost orchestral amplitude to its radiant culmination.
Ysaÿe’s posthumous Andante, given as an encore, was no mere makeweight and its single overwhelming climax brought music of rare passion.