So closely identified in the aristocratic Salvatore Accardo with Paganini’s solo violin works on disc that it is almost impossible to hear either set of variations included here without his super-refined sound and effortless agility ringing in one’s ears. Greek virtuoso George Zacharias is no less fleet-fingered and stylistically assured than his Italian colleague; indeed, some may prefer his more luxuriously rounded sound, smoother legato and almost superhuman taming of ‘noises off’. That said, it is Accardo who truly captures the music’s inherent sense of danger and at times almost comically insane technical demands. If Zacharias leaves one lost in admiration at his remarkable facility, Accardo has one sitting slack-jawed in amazement at the sheer effrontery of it all.
The most demanding of all works for solo violin is the Bartók Sonata, composed during a four-month stay in Asheville, North Carolina during the winter of 1943-44. The opening Tempo di ciaccona established the work’s credentials with its dramatic rethinking of Baroque formal procedures, its tripartite structure ingeniously welding together elements of the chaconne with those of sonata style. The Fuga opens more formally but then tends towards free fantasy, highlighted by often excruciating technical demands. The shadowy world of the Melodia is enhanced by the use of a mute, creating a distantly veiled sonority, articulated by mysterious trill and tremolo figurations, while the Presto finale is a breathtaking whirlwind of ferocious pyrotechnics and unstoppable rhythmic force.
Although it was written for Yehudi Menuhin (who recorded an imposing if technically less than mellifluous account for EMI), no one in recent years has come as close as Christian Tetzlaff (Virgin) to unlocking this score’s almost impenetrable secrets. If Tetzlaff uses the music’s indigenous folk-music origins as an interpretative launch-pad, creating the strange impression of a crazed gypsy violinist in meltdown, Zacharias is temperamentally far closer to Menuhin in his apparent desire to absorb this intractable score into the Western performing tradition. At times one might wish that Zacharias had let Bartók’s more startling revelations off the leash, but for a reading that places this masterpiece in a direct line from Bach’s solo sonatas and partitas, this is one of the finest recordings currently available.
Although relatively little is heard of his music today, Greek composer and violinist Nikos Skalkottas briefly achieved cult status during the 1960s. Starting out as a shameless neo-Classicist, following a period of severe depression associated with various marital problems, he emerged as a more intellectually rigorous figure and began embracing the serial techniques of Arnold Schoenberg. His Solo Violin Sonata is the earliest of his surviving works, yet already one can sense his individual voice emerging in this four-movement, 12-minute piece, which, although tonally no more adventurous than Ysaye’s solo sonatas, makes even more overt cross-references to the violin classics of the past.
The one-movement Sixth of Ysaye’s Solo Violin Sonatas is dedicated to Manuel Quiroga (1890-1961), a fabulously gifted Spanish prodigy, who had looked set to become one of the leading players of his generation until his career was cut tragically short by a debilitating accident. He died shortly after his seventy-first birthday in April 1961, coincidentally just a few months before Fritz Kreisler, dedicatee of the Fourth Sonata.
Zacharias proves especially persuasive in these enormously demanding opuses, tracing their expressive logic with a probing assuredness that is enormously compelling. I look forward to his next release with eager anticipation.