The Belgian violinist Eugène Ysaÿe (1858-1931) was the most influential player of his day, and his six solo sonatas present the performer with the greatest technical challenge since Paganini. Fortunately, they are also vastly more rewarding to listen to than Paganini’s dreary Caprices. Each of the sonatas is inscribed to an outstanding player of a generation that admired Ysaÿe unreservedly, and it is the dedicatee’s character that shapes the music. The classically conceived First Sonata was inspired by the elegance and purity of Joseph Szigeti’s playing; and the second, written for Jacques Thibaud, disturbingly mingles snatches of the Prelude from Bach’s E major Partita with the ‘Dies irae’ plainchant. The Third Sonata is a rhapsodic, single-movement Ballade which reflects the personality of George Enescu; while the more neo-classical style of the Sonata No. 4 was tailor-made for Fritz Kreisler.
Frank Peter Zimmermann’s direct rival in the sonatas is the veteran American violinist Oscar Shumsky on Nimbus. Shumsky has a commanding authority that Zimmermann cannot quite match, but make no mistake, this is very fine playing, and Zimmermann’s technical command is breathtaking. He has, moreover, been far better recorded than Shumsky, and his disc comes with the bonus of two substantial pieces for violin and piano. Misha Donat