Eugene Ysae's six unaccompanied violin sonatas, composed when his own playing days were over and dedicated to colleagues he admired, occupy a special niche in the repertoire. Though inspired by Bach's sonatas and partitas and peppered with quotes from them, they are unequalled for sheer virtuosity and romantic sensuousness; only a great violinist intimately familiar with the resources of his instrument could have written them. On this disc, Maxim Vengerov plays Nos. 2, 3, 4, and 6, along with a transcription by Bruce Fox-Lefriche of Bach's famous Toccata and Fugue in D minor for organ, which he claims was originally conceived for violin. He also performs Shchedrin's "Echo" Sonata, op. 69. Written in 1984 in a mixture of styles from conventional to abrasively dissonant, it outdoes Ysae's in hair-raising pyrotechnics and also honors Bach by quoting from his works. Vengerov's playing is spectacular and makes this disc a must for violin aficionados.
One of the sensational prodigies who emerged from Siberia, Vengerov is young enough to revel in his own virtuosity with relish and abandon. His technical command is unlimited, and he seems incapable of producing a bad sound, except for a strange habit of tearing off last notes with a crescendo and accent like a bad tenor. Tossing off the acrobatics--scales and runs in thirds, fingered octaves and tenths at top speed, leaps and jumps, bravura bowings, chords, pizzicato, ponticello--with effortless ease and infectious enjoyment, he captures the styles of Ysae's dedicatees and gives the pieces shape, character, and expression. For the Bach, he uses a baroque bow and a violin tuned a half-tone down, playing with little or no vibrato but in basically the same intense style. His encore, a pizzicato piece called "Balalaika," written for him by Shchedrin, was recorded live complete with applause and laughter. --Edith Eisler