Notes and Editorial Reviews
String Quintet. String Quartet,
ET’CETERA 4034 (57:37)
Given the number of recordings currently available of his Sonatas for Solo Violin—14, by my count, though I probably missed a few—it’s surprising how much of Ysaÿe’s mature music remains unpublished. Granted, the composer developed his tastes slowly, without the aid of any formal training, but if this recording is
anything to judge by, we are missing out on the products of a highly musical and imaginative intelligence.
The String Quintet in B Minor was completed in 1894, when Ysaÿe was 35, possibly as an isle of calm during the rigors of his first U.S. tour. It’s an ambitious single movement of symphonic dimensions in its roughly 20 minutes: structurally expansive and complex, incorporating both folk elements and richly chromatic harmony, lengthy melodies, and elaborate counterpoint that stylistically recalls Dukas. The logic of the writing is taut; the characterization, contrast, and transformation of its themes inspired. Its failings in my view are the regular doubling of some parts, an abrupt and perfunctory conclusion, and a certain lack of sensitivity to the distinctive tone of the instruments. I can only wonder if Ysaÿe ever had the opportunity to play it in private, and if so, what the reactions of his fellow musicians were.
The String Quartet, “London” began in 1916 as a three-movement duet for two violins, presented by Ysaÿe to his student and friend, Belgium’s Queen Elisabeth. Its first movement was later rewritten as the
Trio de Londres
, then published—and it’s that latter piece that has been reworked by the composer’s grandson, Jacques Ysaÿe (better known as jazz composer/arranger/performer Jack Say), into the form heard here. The liner notes do not mention the reasons for this arrangement, though perhaps it was in hopes of securing just such a performance as this one. The work is another long-limbed fantasia, with a more subtle, advanced harmonic palette, and just as richly expressive. It doesn’t have any of the characteristics of a traditional 19th-century first movement, but could function well as the slow movement of a symphony for string orchestra.
The Andante in B Minor dates from 1893, and shares many characteristics with the String Quintet—including a gesture of respect to the past, here taking the form of an
theme stated in quasi-Baroque manner with imitative period counterpoint and, five minutes later, a fugue. The quartet that Ysaÿe led would give the world premiere that year of Debussy’s String Quartet, but we’re miles away from it here, in complexities of another sort. Like the String Quintet and the “London” String Quartet, this Andante doesn’t fit expectations of tempo or expressivity, being more in the way of a transformative movement that contrasts and combines a number of striking themes.
Finally, there are variations on the 24th Caprice of Paganini, unpublished. The liner notes do not indicate what form they first took, only that Jacques Ysaÿe again created the arrangements for violin and piano, and for string quartet. An original for solo violin is certainly possible, given the thin textures to most of the variations, although there are a few harmonically rich and adventurous ones that would work best for at least two stringed instruments. Taken strictly on their own merits, they make an excellent conclusion to this program. Technically brilliant, the piece still has more substance than many other popular sets of late-Romantic violin variations.
I have great admiration for the Kryptos Quartet’s performances. Created in 2002, the ensemble has taken on several intricate works on this release, and performed all of them with spirit and an attention to detail. For the most part they are technically adept, though first violinist Hanna Drzewiecka has problems with some of the knottier figurations in the
. Their expressivity is never in doubt, and the often intricate textures are dealt with in a manner that shows many hours spent refining phrasing and balance. But what impresses me most is their rich and varied sound. Unlike some other modern string quartets, they don’t restrict themselves to a relatively narrow vibrato and sonic palette, but can achieve where needed the kind of tonal opulence possessed by the original Borodin Quartet. It is most notable in the opening of the String Quintet, but appears wherever required. Simply put, the Kryptos musicians like making beautiful music.
Factor in close sound, and you have a winner. Definitely recommended.
FANFARE: Barry Brenesal
Works on This Recording
Quartet for Strings "London" by Eugène Ysaÿe
Kryptos String Quartet
Venue: Toots Studio, VRT, Brussels
Length: 14 Minutes 6 Secs.
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