taught me a great deal), recording producer Andrew Keener reminisces about ‘Paganini in lockdown’, the sessions having taken place in London’s Henry Wood Hall during May and June last year. Keener reports how Alina Ibragimova pledged to take the opportunity to do ‘some serious work’ on these widely variegated Caprices. And believe me, neither he nor she were joking.
Here we have a recording that is the equivalent of ‘being there’: the sound is extraordinarily present (thanks also to recording engineer Simon Eadon) – we even encounter what appears to be a touch of creative sound theatre, at the close of Caprice No 18 in C, where Ibragimova seems to wistfully wander away from the mics. And there’s the soloist’s acute micromanagement of virtually every note, with playful accents, dynamics ranging from ppp to fff, sometimes to shocking effect (in No 24, the most famous Caprice of all, at 3’42”, from quiet whistling to fierce, swingeing chords), generally sparing vibrato and keenly etched characterisation.
Sometimes the effect is pure magic, the ethereal trilling of No 6 in G minor, played very quietly, being a case in point. No 13 in B flat is commonly nicknamed ‘The Devil’s Laughter’ (which is what it sounds like on Thomas Zehetmair’s recording), whereas Ibragimova more suggests the Devil’s leer, with lasciviously drooling double-stops. Thereafter the abrasive second half suggests a rude comeuppance – though once humbled, the Devil returns as if with his tail between his legs. And then there’s the D major Caprice No 20, with its D‑string drone, so chaste with Ibragimova; and yet turn to James Ehnes and we encounter what seems more like a loving gaze.
Ibragimova’s principal strength, aside from an all-facilitating technique, is her amazing imagination, an ability to turn each individual piece into a vivid narrative. Her mastery of tone and texture, fantasy and at times wit will enthral, but because she packs each piece with so much incident, following her for more than, say, half a dozen pieces at a time is (pleasantly) exhausting. I couldn’t possibly not recommend this set; but if you’d prefer to listen to Paganini Caprices at a single sitting (Ibragimova’s set clocks in at a generous 104’29”) then I suggest either Ehnes, Ning Feng or Zehetmair. Among oldies, the fabulous, late Ivry Gitlis (Decca) is, in terms of chutzpah, more ‘the Devil incarnate’ than any other player in living memory. Rob Cowan
Selected comparisons: Zehetmair (12/09) (ECM) 476 3318 Ehnes (1/10) (ONYX) ONYX4044 Feng (3/21) (CHNN) CCS43221
Ysaÿe Six Solo Violin Sonatas, Op 27 James Ehnes vn Onyx F ONYX4198 (66’ • DDD)
Lockdown may not have served many practical purposes but in musical terms this superb home-recorded set of Ysaÿe’s Solo Violin Sonatas (composed in 1924) has provided at least one, James Ehnes having commenced recording in the early hours when all was quiet. Performing in this way ‘during these troubled times makes for a powerful and intimate listening experience’, as Ehnes himself puts it. And you can tell by listening just how powerful that experience was.
Ysaÿe opined that a violin master ‘must be a violinist, a thinker, a poet, a human being, he must have known hope, love, passion and despair, he must have run the gamut of the emotions in order to express them all in his playing’. Which makes you realise just why Ehnes, who is surely among the most thoughtful virtuosos currently performing, is especially qualified for the job. In addition to those human and emotional qualities singled out by Ysaÿe, he has a vivid imagination, which tells with particular impact in his playing of the fifth sonata, dedicated to Mathieu Crickboom, the first movement a dawn scene with its pizzicatos, chord trills and rich harmonies, all maybe echoing birdsong, and ending on a sea of arpeggios. The second movement is a jaunty rustic dance, played by Ehnes with gypsy-style inflections, while the last sonata (dedicated to Manuel Quiroga, who never actually played it in public) – the most overtly virtuoso piece in the set, written around the same time as Ravel’s Tzigane (1922‑24) – also suggests a possible element of gypsy influence.
The first sonata was inspired by Joseph Szigeti’s playing of solo Bach. It’s a fine showcase for Ehnes’s own performing style, which has a Bachian purity about it (in that respect he rather resembles Arthur Grumiaux), his warmth of attack, gentle slides (though few in number, again I’d reference Grumiaux), sonorous double-stops and arpeggios, keenly etched dynamics (ie the telling
30 GRAMOPHONE 30 GRAMOPHONE SHORTLIST 2022
reduction of tone at 2’22” into the first movement), and the shimmering tremolando towards the close. There’s a real ease of passage around the start of the fugato and such mastery of the various events that come afterwards, with never a hint of ugly overkill. Also, a complete control of vibrato, never overused; and where chords are played, voicing is also perfectly even, while intonation never falters.
In the second sonata (written for Ysaÿe’s friend Jacques Thibaud), the playful Bach reference at the start (Prelude to the E major Partita) crossed by the famously darkening ‘Dies irae’ motif is very lightly done, whereas the same motif returns deathly quiet at the close of the ‘Malinconia’ second movement. The third sonata or Ballade (for Enescu) is the cycle’s centrepiece in more ways than one, with its Korngold-like melodic lines, which morph into a sort of cadenza and reference all sorts of works, or seem to – Bach’s D minor Chaconne, for example, and the Sibelius Concerto.
Ehnes has indeed ‘run the gamut of the emotions’, and thought deeply about these pieces, too. Sound-wise, his home proves an ideal recording venue, so vivid is the beautiful sound of the instrument used. The excellent annotations are by Philip Borg-Wheeler. As to CD rivals, Kerson Leong (Alpha, 5/21) is also excellent; Thomas Zehetmair (ECM, 1/05) provides a puckish alternative, though Ehnes is warmer; while Oscar Shumsky’s playing style (Nimbus, 8/83) harks back to the Auer school. But Ehnes’s ‘centrist’ approach keeps your attention focused on the music, leaving you to marvel at his technique only after you’ve stopped listening. Rob Cowan
‘Camino’ Falla Homenaje, ‘Le tombeau de Claude Debussy’. El sombrero de tres picos – Danza del molinero José Guitar Sonata – Pavana triste Mompou Cançons i danses – No 6; No 10. Suite compostelana Poulenc Sarabande Ravel Pavane pour une infante défunte Satie Gnossiennes – No 1; No 3. Gymnopédie No 1 Sean Shibe gtr Pentatone F PTC5186 870 (56’ • DDD)
The album cover shows Sean Shibe shorn of his luxuriant locks; photos inside catch him in the act itself, wielding gramophone.co.uk