Considered the greatest violinist of his time, Ysaÿe was born in Liège, Belgium. His incredible technical mastery of the instrument, combined with his unparalleled depth of expression, had an enormous impact on the repertoire in the early 20th century; the Belgian Ysaÿe Foundation lists over 200 works dedicated to him, including pieces by Debussy, Saint-Saëns, Chausson, and Franck. Born into a family of instrumentalists, Ysaÿe began studying violin with his father when he was four. He entered the Conservatoire at Liège when he was only seven, the same year he made his public debut. He left the Conservatoire four years later to play in orchestras all across Europe, eventually continuing his studies at the Brussels Conservatoire; in 1886 he was offered a teaching position there. Even while teaching at his alma mater, Ysaÿe continued to tour, as well as conduct concerts at home; he gave exposure to works by many French and Belgian composers.
Ysaÿe’s six sonatas for solo violin are masterpieces of the genre. Written in 1924, each sonata is dedicated to a contemporary violinist, including several of the composer’s own students. Each sonata reflects the performance style of its dedicatee. Tonight’s “Ballade” was written for Romanian violinist and composer George Enescu, who later taught Yehudi Menuhin.
Unlike its predecessors in the set, the “Ballade” is only one movement. The movement contains two sections, a slow, recitative-like one and an Allegro in tempo giusto e con bravura. The Lento molto sostenuto section that opens the movement is both precise and emotional, with longing half-steps and daunting larger-than-octave leaps. An animated passage leads to the Allegro section where dotted rhythms move the music along. Rapid triplets and many passages of double-stops reoccur. Almost fugue-like, the Allegro then relaxes briefly before returning to virtuosic passages with repetitive figures and an exhausting number of notes. The ending builds first with single notes and then with climbing double stops.
-Jessie Rothwell is a Los Angeles based writer, composer, and curator who also bakes pies and constantly considers what foods pair with what wines.