Cicerone Take Away Lesson – YSAYE sonata No.3

Pavel Berman about his own interpretation of Ysaye sonata "George Enescu" (video)

Some composers left notes about what actually inspired their compositions or at least the indications on the original score showed almost no doubt about how to play them. But in the case of Ysaye sonata No. 3  we just know two indications, referred to the two main sections:

  • Ballades; Lento molto sostenuto
  • Allegro in tempo giusto e con bravura

Which is really not much to set up an interpretation of the piece; so we can choose to play it “technically” or give it an environment, a story, and a climax.

Some historical information

Before we go deeper into  M° Berman’s class, let’s have a look at a few historical pieces of information and understand in which situation Ysaye sonata No. 3 was composed:

After having heard Joseph Szigeti perform Johann Sebastian Bach's sonata for solo violin in G minor, Ysaye was inspired to compose violin works that represent the evolution of musical techniques and expressions of his time, and part of this work is a set of sonatas for unaccompanied violin written in July 1923.

Each sonata was dedicated to one of Ysaÿe’s favorite contemporary violinists: Joseph Szigeti (No. 1), Jacques Thibaud (No. 2), George Enescu (No. 3), Fritz Kreisler (No. 4), Mathieu Crickboom (No. 5), and Manuel Quiroga (No. 6)

Ysaye solo sonatas score

As Ysaye claimed, "I have played everything from Bach to Debussy, for real art should be international."

Use of prominent characteristics of early 20th-century music

In this set of sonatas, he used prominent characteristics of early 20th-century music, such as whole tone scalesdissonances, and quarter tones. Ysaÿe also employed virtuoso bow and left-hand techniques throughout, for he believed that "at the present day the tools of violin mastery, of expression, technique, mechanism, are far more necessary than in days gone by. In fact, they are indispensable if the spirit is to express itself without restraint."

High technical demands on the performer

Thus, this set of sonatas places high technical demands on its performers. Yet Ysaye recurrently warns violinists that they should never forget to play instead of becoming preoccupied with technical elements; 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”.

"Have a story in mind while performing"

This last sentence perfectly matches with Pavel Berman’s belief;       in fact, he basically claims the necessity ("not always but in this case it's good..") of having a story in your mind which adapts to the composition, and allows you to give to the different parts a proper climax and emphasis. In this case, he divided the piece into ten parts, each of them with its own features and mood. He told us that he conceived this story when he first started to play the Ysaye sonata, that is when he was a little more than a child, yet this kind of conceiving is still very much involving and emotional to us, so we’re proud to present it to you in this exclusive video. You can also watch and listen to the straight performance in the second video below, and we thank Maestro Pavel Berman for this precious explanation.

The straight performance:

Pavel Berman was born in Moscow where he studied at the Tchaikovsky Conservatory and in 1992 he moved on to study with Dorothy DeLay and with Isaac Stern at the Juilliard School in New York . He gained international attention when he won the First Price and Gold Medal at the International Violin Competition of Indianapolis in 1990. Berman has recorded for Koch International, Audiofon, Discover, Phoenix Classics and Dynamic. He teaches in Lugano and lives in Milano.  He performs on the Antonio Stradivari violin, Cremona 1702 ‘ex David Oistrach’ lent to him by the Pro Canale Foundation, Milan.