Eugene YSAŸE: 6 Sonatas for Solo Violin – Sharon Park — MSR Classics MS 1631, 66:55—7/29/17, ****:
Ysaÿe lived during an interesting period of history (1858-1923). Having witnessed the advances in the first third of the twentieth-century, his music reflects models of the old but in quite modern clothing. Dr. Sharon Park has recorded his six violin sonatas—a crowded field—that were originally modeled after the sonatas and partitas for solo violin by Bach. The title for Park’s recording is apt: Ysaÿe dedicated each one to a contemporary violinist, including Szigeti, Thibuad, Enescu, Kreisler, Crickboom, and Quiroga. Park currently enjoys a career with feet both worlds: she specializes in both chamber music and serves as lead second violinist in an orchestra. Her performance is captured with very ample reverb which worked best for me in my listening room with conventional two-way loudspeakers. Using headphones, I noticed ambient noise that is typically absent from top-shelf productions. But that slight hum was the only blemish in the production that showed polish by Park across all six sonatas.
Ysaÿe was a violinist and his sonatas, when written, were state of the art. He employs every practical technique for performance, from extreme ranges of the instrument, to multiple-note stopping, variations in bowing, and the juxtaposition of musical scenes that change flavor and emotional intensity. Park’s liner notes and dedicated website provide ample background information on the dedicatee for each sonata, showcasing the individuals for whom Ysaÿe channeled for each piece.
The opening of the fifth sonata (in G major, L’Aurore), combines playing with double stops and plucked notes. In both slow passages like this one, and the ones fast (Sonata no. 2, IV. Les furies), Park consistently demonstrates excellent intonation. The latter example, too, showcases the variety of possibilities with Park’s violin’s tone, changing quickly from a husky, almost dark, burnished tone, to icy and metallic passages performed sol ponticello.
A few minutes into any one of the sonatas assuredly reminds us that these pieces were born in the twentieth century. What is unexpected, however, are the references—sometimes direct quotes (Sonata no. 2), or through harmonies or small quotations of figures similar in melody or rhythms (Sonata no. 1)—that Ysaÿe uses to reference the monuments penned some two hundred years earlier by Johann Sebastian Bach. The appropriate venue for solo Bach might be a smallish chamber. But by the time Ysaÿe pens these works, the violin had been modernized to the point of carrying further in larger concert spaces. The reverb that we hear in this recording, then, is appropriate. Reverb can sometimes heal the imperfect sound of an instrumentalist, but I see no evidence in this recording by Sharon Park that she needs it. Her confidence is always on display, even in the third sonata, dedicated to Georges Enescu, featuring passages with microtones—notes tuned “between” the normal chromatic scale.
Perhaps intentionally, Ysaÿe’s sonatas are each their own world. Much like their inspiration—the Sonatas and Partitas by Bach—I enjoyed them each alone rather than hearing them back to back. Violinists who attempt these works—especially those recording all six—put all their skills on display. Sharon Park has joined the elite set who have recorded these diverse and challenging works. The pieces are such that they offer considerable interpretive freedom. Park matches the challenge. Most impressive to me are her runs into the upper-stratosphere of the violin’s range. Each time she arrives there confidently and assuredly in tune. This solo release is my first exposure to Dr. Park’s playing and I look forward to what’s next.