Interview with the young violinist Vasilis Soukas on his recital with the six Ysaÿe sonatas for solo violin
On December 9, 2023, at 20:30 at the 'Parnassos' concert hall in the center of Athens, there will be a violin recital that few violinists attempt. My good friend and colleague Vassilis Soukas will perform the six sonatas for solo violin by Eugene Ysaÿe. I am sure that all string instrument players understand what a great challenge this undertaking is for a violinist. On the occasion of this concert, I had an extensive discussion-interview with Vasilis in which we talked about why he decided to do this recital, about the research he has done on the Ysaÿe sonatas, and also his thoughts on music, his ideas on effective practicing and many other interesting subjects. I decided to bring this discussion to the written text as literal as possible. That's why you will probably notice a character of spoken language. I would like to point out that this interview took place in December 2019 because the recital was originally scheduled for May 2020. However, due to the Corona virus pandemic, it had to be cancelled. I personally enjoyed this discussion very much and I believe you will find it very interesting and a source of new knowledge. As always, I'd love to receive your thoughts and comments.
V.M. What was the motivation for doing such a difficult and special recital?
V.S. I like to take on challenges that push me to redefine my limits. This is how I develop as a musician and continuous development is very important to me.
V.M. But why did you choose to play specifically the Ysaÿe sonatas?
V.S. I chose the Ysaÿe sonatas because I am familiar with this work. I have practiced all the sonatas from time to time and have played most of them in concert. Unlike for example the Paganini caprices with which I am not so familiar. Also, in the Ysaÿe sonatas I believe I have things to add in terms of interpretation.
V.M. This is what I would like to dwell on. From an artistic point of view, what prompted you to play all the sonatas?
V.S. I believe that I have a new interpretative perspective to give to these works. You know, interpretation traditions are created over the years which do not always correspond to what is written in the score. These sonatas are so different from each other. Nevertheless, there are connecting links that connect all six sonatas into a whole. For example, elements of the first sonata are found in the fourth, or elements of the sixth sonata are found in the third and fifth.
V.M. So, beyond specific parts of the pieces where you could tell me that e.g. here the interpretative tradition is like this but the text shows us that it should be the opposite, in general how is your approach different than others in the interpretation of these works?
V.S. There are so many great interpretations of these works. Nevertheless, I feel that there is generally a ‘violinistic’ approach. Meaning that most performers focus on demonstrating their own virtuosic skills. This is of course completely expected since Ysaÿe himself through his compositions (especially the six sonatas) expands the possibilities of violin playing into a new level. But beyond that, I believe there is an orchestral dimension to these sonatas. Ysaÿe was intensively involved in conducting. He was the conductor of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra and his involvement with orchestral music influenced him as a composer. When I play these works, I hear timbres that remind me of orchestral instruments. I believe that a good arranger could very easily transcribe these works for symphony orchestra. Among other things, I will try to make the listener who comes to my recital perceive and feel the orchestral dimension of these works.
V.M. I would like you to tell me how you characterize these works in terms of atmosphere, character, writing.
V.S. Ysaÿe's aesthetic was greatly influenced by Impressionism which was the dominant artistic movement of his time.
He used aspects and techniques of the instrument to serve this aesthetic and set new standards in violin playing. A myth has been cultivated among violinists which is that Ysaÿe composed the sonatas under the influence or let’s say as a reflection of Bach's Sonatas and Partitas. There is some truth in this because he composed his first sonata after seeing the great Hungarian violinist Joseph Szigeti playing Bach's first sonata for solo violin in G minor.
Ysaÿe’s sonatas are associated with the violinists for whom they were written and the way they played. In fact, if one listens to Szigeti playing Bach's Adagio (the first movement of Bach’s first solo sonata), one will hear a very slow playing. So, it is no coincidence that Ysaÿe wrote the first movement of the first sonata as Grave.
Four of the six sonatas were performed by the violinists for whom they were composed. Only Manuel Quiroga and Mathieu Crickboom did not play the sonatas dedicated to them by Ysaÿe.
It is therefore important when one practices these sonatas to research and understand how these violinists played. A very characteristic example is the third sonata which is dedicated to Enescu. In this sonata we can observe folklore elements that also characterize Enescu as a violinist and as a composer. Furthermore, in the fourth sonata we notice the finesse and ingenuity that characterized Kreisler as well as the reference to old-style musical themes.
Another example is the first part of the second sonata dedicated to Thibaud.
V.M. Don't we have a clear reference to Bach there?
V.S. Not necessarily! There Ysaÿe was inspired by Thibaud, not by Bach. If one looks at all the editions of the sonatas, the first movement of the second sonata is entitled Obsession. In the manuscript, however, it is referred to as L'Obsession. It means ‘The Obsession’. Meaning, a specific obsession. And I will write it in my concert program notes as L'Obsession. It is of great importance because it refers to Thibaud's obsession with practicing every day, Bach's prelude from the third partita. However, he never performed it in concert because he was afraid that he will have a memory lapse. So, Ysaÿe is in a way satirizing him in the first movement of the second sonata. He composed the introduction of the sonata in such a way as to describe a scene where Thibaud starts playing the Bach Preludio but very soon he has a memory lapse. Then he angrily plays some random notes before he remembers the correct notes and resumes playing Bach Preludio.
Therefore, another challenge I am facing is to be able to depict the different character and style of each sonata as they reflect the playing style of each violinist to whom they are dedicated.
V.M. I would like you to tell me about the research you have done on the sonatas. Have you spotted any differences in the text between the various editions?
V.S. When I decided to do this recital, the first thing I did was to play all the sonatas once so I could remember them again. As I mentioned before, I had played them all at various stages in my life. So, one day, I was playing the sixth sonata from some old edition and when I got to bar 65 where there is a triple chord, I noticed that the low note of this chord was a G natural. I was puzzled because I remembered that this G was sharp. I then looked at the Musica editions where they also had it as a G natural. Also, the Henle editions had it as a G natural as well as a manuscript I have found. This manuscript was not Ysaÿe's but a copyist's which also included some notes from a student of Ysaÿe. But the Ysaÿe editions which were the first official and complete editions of the sonatas had it as G sharp. That little fact was enough to make me curious about what other differences there might be.
So, from the research I've done, the most differences I've found compared to the official editions are in the first, second and fourth sonatas. The most fundamental and important of these changes is found in the first movement of the fourth sonata where there are three bars which are completely different (bars 17-19). Music that has never been heard before. I have located the specific different bars in a manuscript that appears to be Ysaÿe's own. These three bars are important for a specific reason. In the finale of the fourth sonata there is a middle section in which the composer presents musical themes that have been heard in all the previous movements. But within this section there is a harmonic chain, a distinct musical theme, which does not exist anywhere else in the sonata. But the three bars of the manuscript I mentioned earlier contain the subject in question. Another characteristic change that does not appear in any official edition is in the Sarabande of the same sonata. There is a letter from Ysaÿe to Kreisler to whom the fourth sonata is dedicated where he writes: ‘My friend, I would like you to start the Sarabande by playing the theme pizzicato twice’. This addition, which I think is very nice and appropriate, does not exist in any edition of the sonatas.
Apart from the differences I have mentioned, there is also the sonata recently discovered by Philipe Graffin which Ysaÿe wrote as an alternative to the sixth. This sonata has a first, second and a bit of a third movement which Graffin completed. In Ysaÿe's notebook where Graffin found the lost sonata there is also a completely different first movement of the first sonata which although based on the same thematic material is very differently structured. There are different harmonies, intense rhythmic elements and it is written in the Allemanda style.
At that time, it was typical for composers to dedicate their works to their friends. As, for example, Ceasar Franck who composed his violin sonata as a gift for Ysaÿe's wedding. Composers dedicated their works to their friends, because they valued them as artists, and this often meant that they gave them the freedom to make any changes they deemed necessary. So, we can say that music at that time was not treated dogmatically. Embracing this idea, I want to bring to light changes that have never been heard of and are ideas of Ysaÿe himself.
These sonatas were first published in parts and after 1924 altogether in one book. Later, Ysaÿe's corrections to the official edition were found in Ysaÿe's archives. Unfortunately, I don't have access to this file but some of these corrections are listed in the Henle edition.
However, I am very careful which of these differences I will include in my performance. Any such change must fit into the structure of the piece and be supported harmonically.
V.M. What was the biggest difficulty you encountered in your preparation?
V.S. The biggest difficulty was obviously the bulk of music I had to prepare but also the peculiarity of the project. This is not an ordinary concert where you would usually play e.g. three large sonatas for violin and piano or some quartet where you are part of an event. Here all the music is about the violinist who is alone on stage and must manage vast amounts of information. So, for me, that was the biggest challenge. How to organize all this information mentally and technically.
V.M. What strategy did you follow in preparing this recital?
V.S. When the season ended last summer (2019) I felt I wanted to do something big because I hadn't done many concerts and I was feeling a bit demotivated. I had played the Ysaÿe sonatas as I mentioned earlier in different periods of my life, so I thought of playing them all in one recital. So, in September (2019) I went through the whole book to see what I remembered. I was quite satisfied so I decided that such a recital is possible. I made a rough plan of which sonatas I would practice each month and estimated that I needed about a year to prepare. In the first stage of this planning, I decided to practice in September the first and fifth sonatas. In October the fourth and sixth and in November the second and third. Of course, because I also have a job at the Athens State Orchestra as well as other obligations, I understood that I might not be able to keep to this schedule. I didn't get much out of it after all. Close to Christmas I had completed this first cycle of practicing, so I contacted the Athens Conservatory and booked the date of the recital. Now I entered a new phase of practicing. I played again the sonatas I had practiced in September and I was very pleased to find out that I remembered them and I played them much more maturely. So, now I started to delve deeper. I also recorded a large part of my practicing in order to have a clearer picture of how my playing sounds and to identify the spots that needed improvement. I always make a note of what these spots are because it's very easy to forget.
One thing I did in the early stages of my practicing, was that I marked with an asterisk all the passages which require continued practice for purely mechanical reasons. Like fast arpeggios, doublet stop transitions like thirds to sixths and big shifts. So that they become automatic, and I am able to play them without active thinking. For me that's about fifty passages in all the sonatas. In every practice session, I pick one of these passages and practice it regardless of which sonata I've decided to work on that day.
V.M. I would like to insist a little more on the topic of practicing and ask you to suggest ways that make practicing more efficient.
V.S. Something I consider very important during the practice process and especially when one has to prepare a repertoire for solo violin is harmonic analysis. The melodies of a piece are based on some chords that the violinist must be able to identify and hear with their inner ear. These harmonies will determine phrasing, character, and so many other aspects of an interpretation.
I remember in the past playing a Bach movement from the solo sonatas and partitas and structuring my performance just to make it sound good to me. When years later I did harmonic analysis, I realized that I should have approached this music very differently. It is therefore very important for a musician to analyze and understand the structural elements of a work because this way their playing acquires substance and creates a sense of natural flow.
V.M. What do you think is the role of the performer? To express their feelings through music or to present the musical work as a structure and let the listener choose what to feel?
V.S. Music has a scientific side, but it never ceases to appeal to the individual and their emotions. The performer must examine the elements of the work and pass their interpretive decisions through the filter of the mind but must in no case sacrifice their spontaneity and set aside their artistic instincts for the sake of some fidelity. So, I believe that the musician during the practice process must first analyze the piece in depth and perceive it in its purest form. Also, to make a harmonic analysis, understand its structure and rhythmic character and to be able to play it with the greatest possible fidelity. In a second stage, they must shape all these elements to give it a flow and a naturalness.
V.M. You are preparing this program with the Ysaÿe sonatas while at the same time you work in the Athens State Orchestra. All instrumentalists know that playing in an orchestra can wear the violinist down. What are you doing to deal with this? Do you study any specific exercises to keep your playing at a high level?
V.S. Yes, it is true that playing in an orchestra can negatively affect your playing. Many times, I have practiced after an orchestra rehearsal and found that my sound was harsh or that the intonation was not at the level it should be. But when one chooses to work in an orchestra one must accept that this wear and tear is part of the process and constantly try to deal with it. I have an aggressive way of dealing with this situation. I try to do as many solo or chamber music concerts as I can.
All these concerts require systematic and careful work. This way I force myself to be alert and keep my playing at a high level. When I started preparing the Ysaÿe sonatas my playing immediately improved significantly. I began to bring back qualities that I had begun to lose because of the orchestra.
Besides these, there is something that helps me to keep my playing in shape. It is the Ysaÿe's scales and exercises . It is an exercise book which, despite its title, was not written by Ysaÿe. It was found in the library of a university in Belgium, and it is basically a collection of notes by a student of Ysaÿe. The editors did research to confirm the validity of these notes by asking the opinion of various students of Ysaÿe who were then alive. They all said that this was indeed what Ysaÿe taught in his lessons. But apart from this research, when playing these exercises, it becomes obvious that they reflect the technique and the fingerings used in the sonatas. From this book I select some exercises to warm up. This warmup usually lasts around half an hour, and it includes legato passages with string crossing, scales, arpeggios, double stops and more.
V.M. As a final question I would like to ask if you have any thoughts, concerns, or expectations for the day of the recital.
V.S. I have some concerns that have to do with energy. In a concert where you play with other people, there is an exchange of energy. You give and you receive. But when you play alone on the stage, you just consume your energy. I haven’t figured out how to tackle this problem. I hope and believe that the audience will send me back energy.
V.M. I would like to wrap up this article with an important note. Vasilis will present the sonatas not in the order that have been composed but in an order that connects them better in terms of tonality, length, and aesthetics. After lots of thought he decided to present the sonatas in the following order: He will start with the first sonata. He will continue with the fifth, then the sixth, the fourth, the second and he will finish with the epic third sonata. Just a small example of the thinking behind this order is the connection between the first and the fifth sonatas. If you check the score, you will see that the fifth sonata starts with the exact same double stop as the first sonata ends. I would like to present his whole thinking behind this order but in that case, I would need a second lengthy interview. Also, I believe that too much detail may steal some of the magic of the performance. So, I strongly suggest that you come to experience this special recital on the 9th of December at the Parnassos concert hall.