About this Recording

Sarasate – Mendelssohn – Ysaÿe – Piazzolla


The great Spanish violinist Pablo Martín Melitón de Sarasate y Navascués, better known to the world as Pablo de Sarasate , was born in Pamplona in March 1844. His father was a bandmaster in Navarra, and an unsuccessful amateur violinist. Sarasate’s childhood was peripatetic, determined by his father’s postings, and his musical education was therefore erratic. It’s known that he took lessons from José Courtier in the city of La Coruña, and at the age of ten he was sponsored to study in Madrid with Manuel Rodríguez Sáez, after which things accelerated. A scholarship from Queen Isabella and the Province of Navarre ensured his fees were paid at the Paris Conservatoire—though he survived cholera en route from Madrid (his mother was not so fortunate, dying of a heart attack in Bayonne in France). In Paris he became pupil of Jean-Delphin Alard, won distinguished prizes, and then soon after embarked on his long and increasingly starry career. He first conquered Spain and France, then the Americas, and finally the rest of Europe. Often scorned for his well-known rejection of Brahms’ Violin Concerto he nevertheless played the composer’s chamber music, as well as many works that were dedicated to him by Saint-Saëns, Bruch, Lalo, Wieniawski, Goldmark, Joachim, Svendsen and Raff. His later tours netted him a fortune and he lived long enough to record an important sequence of discs for the gramophone in 1904 which preserved his playing for all time. He died in Biarritz in September 1908.

The large majority of Sarasate’s violin works comprise operatic fantasias, salon confections, and pieces based on Spanish melodies. He also wrote concerto cadenzas, as did many leading soloists, and transcriptions. One of his most popular work remains the Carmen Fantasy, Op. 25, a product of the nineteenth-century vogue for taking themes from popular operas and fashioning them into virtuoso showpieces. Beautifully crafted in five sections but moving with enviable sleight of hand through the thematic highlights of Bizet’s opera, Sarasate introduces the Aragonaise, Habanera, Seguidilla and the Spanish Dance. Sarasate had a number of Mozart’s works in his repertoire and toward the end of his compositional life he produced two fantasies based on operatic themes from the operas Don Giovanni and The Magic Flute. The latter has the distinction of bearing Sarasate’s last opus number, Op. 54. With bravura passages in tenths and canny Paganini-like pizzicato episodes, the work marries virtuosity, elegant legato, and wit. One of his most characteristic pieces is Capricho vasco (Basque Caprice), Op. 24, composed in 1881. Cast in two parts—a Moderato and a series of virtuoso variations—Sarasate’s inspiration lay in genuine Basque melodies, not least the dance called the zortzico. Two of these melodies are Desde que nace el dia (From Break of Day), and Tres Señoritas de San Sebastián (Three Girls from San Sebastián). Sarasate must have continued to think well of the piece as he made a recording of it, somewhat abridged, in his 1904 recording session in Paris.

Despite his eminence, most leading violinists over the last century or so have played only the same dozen pieces, seldom searching deeper into Sarasate’s portfolio of works. Airs espagnols, Op. 18 offers a seamless flow of Iberian themes, some genuine, others of the composer’s invention: jaunty, confident and brilliantly violinistic, or more languid. It’s a lesser-known cousin to Zigeunerweisen. Prière et Berceuse, Op. 17 was published c. 1870 and offers Sarasate in light-hearted, almost Viennese mood.

Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto in E minor was written for Ferdinand David, leader of the Leipzig Orchestra, during the late summer of 1844. Its composition discharged a debt of gratitude to the violinist and expressed, too, something of the relief the composer felt at the end of a period that had involved him in the troublesome musical politics of Berlin. Leipzig was home. The concerto opens, after two brief bars of orchestral accompaniment, with the entry of the soloist playing the principal theme, which is only then taken up by the full orchestra. There are other structural innovations in the movement, with the placing of the cadenza at the end of the central development section, instead of the end of the movement, and with the use of a sustained bassoon note to link the first movement to the second. The deftly scored slow movement, of masterly economy in means, leads to a brief transitional section, followed by a spirited last movement that offers a fine example of that lightness of touch that Mendelssohn had shown time and again, not least in his famous Overture to Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

A violinist very different from Sarasate was Eugène Ysaÿe (1858–1931). Born in Liège he was to have a pivotal role in the development of violin playing in the twentieth-century. His approach to vibrato usage was especially important. He was the pre-eminent figure in the august Franco-Belgian school, inspiring important works for the violin—César Franck’s Violin Sonata was dedicated to him a wedding present—as well as composing in his own right. He lived long enough to hear his opera Pière li houïe (Peter the Miner) performed in Liège and Brussels in 1931. His most lasting compositional legacy remains the six solo Sonatas for Solo Violin, Op. 27, published in 1924, each dedicated to a fellow violinist. These technically and expressively challenging works reflect something of the performing style of the dedicatees. No. 2 is dedicated to his great friend, Jacques Thibaud. There are references to the Prelude of Bach’s Partita in E major—a favourite warm-up piece of Thibaud’s—as well as to the Dies irae of the Requiem Mass, cast in a richly evocative and powerfully propulsive, even sometimes sinister, piece of writing.

The master of the ‘nuevo tango’, a modern tango hybrid influenced by Jazz and classical music, was Argentinian composer Astor Piazzolla , a virtuoso of the bandoneon, or button accordion. He emerged from tango clubs to formulate his very personal idiom, which included electric sounds, which was further deepened by his studies with Nadia Boulanger and Alberto Ginastera. He wrote Las Cuatro Porteñas (The Four Seasons of Buenos Aires) in the late 1960s, though each was originally a stand-alone piece. The allusion is, of course, to Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, and each tango movement evocatively summons up feelings and moods, Summer being especially languid and rich. This arrangement for solo violin and strings is by Leonid Desyatnikov.

Jonathan Woolf
Keith Anderson

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