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8.572216 - SARASATE, P. de: Violin and Orchestra Music, Vol. 2 (Tianwa Yang, Navarre Symphony, Martinez-Izquierdo)
Pablo Sarasate (1844–1908)
The great Spanish violinist Pablo Sarasate was born in Pamplona in 1844, the son of a military bandmaster. After study in Madrid with Manuel Rodríguez Sáez, a pupil of Jules Armingaud, the leader of the quartet of which Edouard Lalo was a member, he entered the Paris Conservatoire at the age of twelve, with the aid of a scholarship from Queen Isabella and the Province of Navarre. Here he became a pupil of Jean-Delphin Alard and also embarked on the study of composition. He won first prize for violin in 1857 and the following year for solfège, and in 1859 for harmony as a pupil of Henri Reber. By the age of fifteen, however, Sarasate had launched himself on a concert career, at first winning a reputation in Spain and France, before more extended tours to North and South America and throughout the rest of Europe. Composers who wrote for him included Saint-Saëns, Bruch, Lalo, Wieniawski and Dvořák, and he remained distinguished for the purity and beauty of his tone, perfection of technique and musical command. He refused, however, to play Brahms’s Violin Concerto, claiming that the only proper melody in the work was given to the oboe. His playing was in contrast to that of his older contemporary Joseph Joachim, who represented a more characteristically German attitude to performance. For his own use Sarasate wrote a number of works for violin and piano or violin and orchestra, including, as might be expected, compositions based on Spanish themes and rhythms. Among these one of the best known is his Zigeunerweisen (Gypsy Airs), together with his Spanish Dances. Following the common practice of his time, he also wrote concert fantasies based on themes from popular operas of the day, of which the best known remains his Carmen Fantasy.
Fantasies on Carmen and Roméo et Juliette
Sarasate’s music can be classified under six different headings: opera fantasies and reminiscences, transcriptions, compositions based on Spanish folk-lore, fantasies and melodies originating from other European countries, completely original compositions and, finally, cadenzas to concertos.
As a young man, Sarasate was justifiably labelled a musical lightweight. Under the guidance of such luminaries as Saint-Saëns. however, he matured rapidly into a towering international figure, the most successful violinist in history. The more profound Joseph Joachim often lamented being relegated into second place, both in the public eye and, more importantly, in the matter of fees. Wieniawski, who was a friend of both, minced no words in explaining to Joachim why he was second.
How Sarasate matured is best exemplified in his opera fantasies. The first attempts were callow indeed. But with his masterpieces Roméo et Juliette, Op. 14, (or, according to Julio Altadill, Op. 5) and Carmen Fantasy, Op. 25, Sarasate had truly arrived. Opera was the most popular form of music during the nineteenth century. In order to capitalize on this, virtuoso composers vied with each other to write fantasies using the most popular tunes. Sarasate was one of the greatest masters of this form. He always selected the themes with great care. The Carmen Fantasy is the most famous of Sarasate’s compositions derived from opera. The themes flow seamlessly from one to the other and feature exclusively those of the tempestuous protagonist, Carmen herself. Sarasate performed his Carmen Fantasy more often than any of his other operatic fantasies. Older colleagues have told me that Sarasate played the variation section of the Habanera (track 2) più mosso, and he added a little E major arpeggio cadenza in the Lento movement (track 3)
The Roméo and Juliette Fantasy is completely different from the Carmen Fantasy. It is pure bel canto and is derived from Charles Gounod’s immensely successful opera of 1867. So successful was this musical setting of Shakespeare’s tragedy that it was parodied almost immediately; “Rhum et eau en juillet” or in English “Rum and water in July”. Sarasate’s setting is disarmingly beautiful. Everywhere he shows his mastery of violin writing, compositional proportion, and not least, orchestration. This is a fabulous work, and sadly neglected. It is dedicated to Mme. Lassabathie, the woman who actually raised Sarasate and whom he called “mother”.
Sarasate was extremely popular in Russia. Canciones rusas, Op. 49, might be considered a paean of thanks to his faithful audiences there. This piece is actually a setting of two Russian folk-songs, and credit is given on the title page to Kashine and Gurileff. Who could not be moved by these musical expressions of Russian pathos? The opening, with its fabulous orchestration, is reminiscent of the song “Along the Peterskaya”. The balalaika effects in pizzicato lend an even more folkloric authenticity. It might be suggested that Chansons russes is equal, at least, to Tchaikovsky’s offerings in the same genre.
Canto del ruiseñor, Op. 29 (Song of the Nightingale), is an entirely original morceau de concert. It is a virtuoso piece, without doubt, but filled with longing and nostalgia, and with an ending worthy of O. Henry. Eduard Lalo liked the piece so much that he orchestrated it. Sarasate’s violin imitates the nightingale, but our nightingale is elevated to an operatic prima donna assoluta.
La chasse, Op.44, is dedicated to the great Belgian virtuoso César Thomson. This famous violinist was known to have played Paganini’s Moto perpetuo in fingered octaves. If this stupendous feat were not enough, Thomson liked to show off by standing not on his head or his hands, but on his thumbs. In deference to his own technique, Sarasate includes no fingered octaves. He does, however, write a consummate piece. The dramatic introduction is filled with suspense. Ominous overtones bring to mind the music of Delibes and César Franck’s Le Chasseur maudit (The Accursed Huntsman). Was Glazunov inspired by La chasse when he composed his Violin Concerto? Be sure to listen to the special bowing in the finale. Sarasate used this brilliant and difficult technique in only one other piece. He also displayed it to stunning effect in the 32nd note (demi-semiquaver) variation in Beethoven’s Kreutzer Sonata. Its effect caused every audience to rise and demand an encore. I remember seeing Jascha Heifetz accomplish the same thing. Sarasate’s virtuosity, like that of Heifetz, was all the more amazing because of the effortless ease with which the difficult passages were tossed off.
Jota de Pablo, Op. 52, concludes this delightful overview of Sarasate on a personal note. While he composed a number of Jotas, this one he composed for himself, as the title declares. It is a superb example of a Jota, and one of the most imaginative. Jota de Pablo, like a Fabergé Imperial Easter Egg, contains a surprise. It concludes con sordino and pianissimo. Only a certified genius could think of something so brilliant.
Lay to rest, then, any preconceptions and prejudices about Sarasate as a lightweight and superficial composer. His fame and success were well deserved.
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