Monday 23 May 2011

Review: Wojciech Koprowski plays Ysaÿe

Eugène Ysaÿe - Six Sonatas for violin solo, Op. 27
Wojciech Koprowski (violin)
CD Accord ACD 147-2 

Judging by the number of new recordings of Eugène Ysaÿe’s Sonatas for solo violin, it seems that this remarkable cycle of violinistic high-wire acts is taking hold among young string players.  It may be that young violinists are seeing them as a short cut to credibility; the demands made of the musician are certainly as great as anything else in the solo violin repertoire and they are not simply flashy showpieces.  Within them lies a world of reference (both to Bach and to Ysaÿe’s great violinist friends) as well as a technical time-capsule preserving in perpetuity the sound of their composer, one of the greatest of all violinists, who sadly peaked just before the advent of recorded sound.

Polish violinist Wojciech Koprowski, born in 1987, brings a staggeringly assured technique to these pieces, playing throughout with a clarity and beauty of tone.  In the First Sonata, the most overtly Bachian in form and movement, Koprowski is precise and ultra smooth.  The voices of the Fugato are excellently defined, played with minimal vibrato, and without prior knowledge you’d not know this was just one instrument.  Koprowski is also excellent at the more introverted moments of the more celebrated Second Sonata, particularly in the Danse des ombres movement.  It’s fair to say that you won’t hear a more immaculate recording of these works; every double stop is precisely tuned and ever voice clear.

There is, however, a lack of fire and movement in the faster movements, which can tend to sound a little metronomic.  For all his technical command, he rarely engages with the score’s implicit demand to reproduce Ysaÿe’s idea of style and sound.  Ysaÿe smothers these pieces with an unprecedented level of performance instruction, carefully managing every detail from rubato to fingering.  Yet Koprowski’s are thoroughly modern performances, rarely employing the more antiquated style of shifts and slides familiar from the few recordings of Ysaÿe’s playing which are known to exist.
Koprowski doesn’t exploit the sense of fantasy in these pieces; the fluttering whole tone passages of the First and Fifth Sonatas are clean rather than mysterious and in general the more transformative moments in these works remain rather prosaic.  In all, he’s tidier but less alive than Thomas Zehetmair in his recording for ECM (ECM4726872), who is thrilling and intelligent in equal measure in these works.  It’s possible that some may prefer Koprowski’s total beauty of sound to Zehetmair’s more aggressive approach, but no one more clearly makes the case for these great masterpieces of the violinist-composer tradition than Zehetmair does.

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