Notes and Editorial Reviews
Six Sonatas for Solo Violin
Kristóf Baráti (vn)
Ysaÿe’s Six Sonatas for Solo Violin are among the most difficult and challenging works ever written for that instrument. As annotator Emanuel Overbecke points out, despite the fact that Ysaÿe had Bach to use as a model, his own solo sonatas are far more complex harmonically as well as structurally. Despite touches of “normal” tonality, Ysaÿe’s language is mostly modal, with the harmonies constantly shifting
away from a tonal center rather than towards one, and both his melodic and rhythmic structure are more ambiguous, often difficult for the performer to discern. Thus it takes an exceptionally fine musician to penetrate to both the heart of Ysaÿe’s emotional center and to the oddly ambiguous structure of these works.
I am happy to say that the young (24-year-old) Hungarian violinist Kristóf Baráti is one such. Like so many of the young violin lions of today, he has a blazing technique, but unlike most such players he is able to modify his phrasing to match the mood of the music and bring out much more than a surface reading. Perhaps one thing that helped him is that his parents are both musicians (his mother a violinist, his father a cellist), but in my mind the mere fact hat he is Hungarian is also a major plus. It has been my experience, over the years, that Hungarian musicians of almost any type (singers, conductors, or solo instrumentalists) are almost unfailingly musical, one might say inherently so. Whether it’s just part of their cultural heritage
or something that most of them receive in their training, I can’t say, and in Baráti’s case his early training and playing experience came not in Hungary but in Caracas, Venezuela; but in his case I am also leaning towards the influence of his parents.
Like many Hungarian and Czech violinists, Baráti possesses a strong, penetrating, and brilliant tone, very occasionally leaning towards edginess in the upper reaches but never quite becoming unpleasant. His downbow attacks are very strong, his intonation always right in the center of the note no matter how fast or how strongly he is playing, and his overall mastery of the instrument so complete that he can focus on musical aspects without worrying if he will get through the music. One of the more interesting aspects of his interpretations here is that they are consistently serious, almost dramatic in scope: he seems to take nothing “lightly,” not even (as some violinists do) the quotation from Bach’s Partita No. 3 in the opening of the Second Sonata. Since this work was dedicated to Jacques Thibaud, a violinist with a light but penetrating tone and elegant phrasing, one might almost imagine that Baráti would emulate him in his approach, but such is not the case. He obviously feels that, in order to be true to the music, he must be true to himself, meaning that he wants his performances to have a uniform quality regardless of the dedicatee. Thus the Sarabande of the Second Sonata does not float, as one imagine it would have in Thibaud’s hands, but rather emerges with an underlying tensile strength. Overbecke’s notes claim that despite the dedications, “stylistically the works are not dissimilar”—in other words, much more Ysaÿe than Szigeti, Thibaud, Kreisler, Enescu, or Crickboom (the latter one of his most talented pupils). Nevertheless, the Enescu Sonata is one of the most terse, its two sections played without a break, and here the harmonic language is very modal indeed, reminiscent of some of Enescu’s own works.
It’s fascinating to compare the almost Bauhaus-angled performance of No. 3 by Baráti to the warmer, more Russian interpretation of David Oistrakh—they almost sounds like two different pieces. Just as one really cannot imagine Thibaud playing Sonata No. 2, I found it nearly impossible to imagine Fritz Kreisler playing Sonata No. 4—but who knows? Certainly, the gentle melody of the Sarabande does sound like something within the scope of Kreisler’s style, and the final
Presto ma non troppo
here by Baráti—also sounds as if it might have been played by the Austrian violinist.
The relatively short (10-minute) Crickboom Sonata (No. 5) opens up with one of the most mysterious passages in the series, played, it seems, on the edge of the bow here to create a haunting, almost otherworldly sound. Baráti imparts tremendous atmosphere to this work, the
emerging slowly as if out of the clouded mists of time. It is, certainly, the strangest opening movement in any of the sonatas, later employing string portamento, trills, and other devices, all performed, so to speak,
by the violin before ever-so-slowly opening up the tone. When Baráti reaches the “Danse rustique,” he becomes unbuttoned, and his performance of the Sixth Sonata is as powerful (in tensile strength as well as in emotion) as any performance I have heard.
The recordings of these works by Philippe Graffin (Helios), Charles Castleman (Music & Arts), and Rachel Kolly d’Alba (Warner Classics) have all been warmly praised, but in my mind the combination of passion and rigorous intellectual structure exhibited by Baráti is irresistible. If you even have a slight liking for these works, you can’t pass this one up.
FANFARE: Lynn René Bayley
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