Hahn delivers gleaming performance of Ysaÿe sonatas

August 09, 2023

Ysaÿe: Six Sonatas for Solo Violin. Hilary Hahn. Deutsche Grammophon (CD).

Inspired by hearing Joseph Szigeti perform a solo Bach sonata, Eugène Ysaÿe wrote his Six Solo Violin Sonatas in 1923. The Belgian violinist-composer dedicated each sonata to a different violinist colleague, incorporating something of their signature musical personality into each work. While Sonatas Nos. 2 and 3 are occasionally heard, the others remain infrequently performed. 

Released on the centennial anniversary of these works, Hilary Hahn’s new recording for the venerable yellow label offers a welcome modern set of Ysaÿe’s complete Op. 27. The historically minded American violinist brings characteristic gleam and communicative warmth to this offbeat repertoire, while conveying the individual qualities of each of these quirky, engaging works. In the Sonata No. 1 (for Szigeti), Hahn, a supreme Bach player, spaciously draws out the Bachian inspiration and she underlines the modernist elements throughout—as with 20th-century Vienna in No. 1 and the stately brooding of the “Malinconia” movement of No. 2 (for Jacques Thibaud).

The Sonata No. 3 “Ballade” (for George Enescu) is arguably the finest work of the set, a concise single movement of mercurial character. Hahn points up the contrasts in a taut, concentrated reading that also conveys the restless, rhapsodic essence. Hahn also sensitively explores the impressionistic mystery in the “L’Aurore” section of Sonata No. 5.

While Ysaÿe’s substantive sonatas are not traditional fiddle showpieces, these are intensely demanding works and Hahn handles all the fireworks and technical challenges with bracing virtuosity and style.

With DG bestowing a luxuriant richness on her instrument, Hilary Hahn’s new disc provides outstanding performances of Ysaÿe’s sonatas as well as a timely opportunity to rediscover some compelling violin repertoire that is still less known than it deserves to be.

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