By Thomas May | From the May-June 2022 issue of Strings magazine
Despite many other obligations as soloists and as chamber musicians in various other formations, Alina Ibragimova and Cédric Tiberghien have continued to make time for a remarkable partnership that has now lasted more than 15 years and continues to inspire reliably fresh and engaging interpretations. At the 2020 International Classical Music Awards, announced just before the pandemic started impacting musical life, the pair won in the chamber-music category for their pairing of César Franck’s Violin Sonata with lesser-known works by Louis Vierne and Eugène Ysaÿe.
Mendelssohn Violin Sonatas
Alina Ibragimova (violin) and Cédric Tiberghien (piano)
Rather than dazzle with rapidly compiled programs of repertoire highlights, the duo prefers to bring in-depth focus to a larger vision. They have recorded the complete violin sonatas of Beethoven, Brahms, and Mozart, as well as all the works for violin and piano by Ravel and Szymanowski. Regarding the Mozart cycle, for example, Gramophone opined that “there is a specific ‘rightness’ to just about everything you hear.”
The most recent project from Ibragimova and Tiberghien (on the Hyperion label) turns the spotlight on Felix Mendelssohn. This intensely self-critical composer published only one sonata for violin and piano—an early work from 1823, the Sonata in F minor, Op. 4—but completed an even earlier Sonata in F major in 1820 and, in 1838, an ambitious Sonata in F major, his last; the works were never published in Mendelssohn’s lifetime. The new album includes these as well as a fragment of the first movement for a projected Sonata in D major/D minor from the late 1820s. From this fragment, the Mendelssohn expert R. Larry Todd speculates that the young composer was “envisioning a large-scale work, perhaps something of the scope of Beethoven’s monumental ‘Kreutzer’ sonata, Op. 47.”
Strings caught up with Ibragimova and Tiberghien via Zoom to talk about their collaboration, Mendelssohn’s writing for violin versus piano, and his achievement in the genre.
Why did you decide to do a complete Mendelssohn cycle?
Ibragimova: We like to record cycles. It always feels like a great way to get [beneath the surface with] a composer—to see how a composer’s language develops throughout their whole life. Sometimes, this happens within the format of the sonata alone; sometimes, as with Szymanowski, in a variety of genres. Mendelssohn also wrote some early student exercises, so we didn’t record absolutely everything. But we had incredible fun working on his sonatas.
Tiberghien: We enjoyed recording Mozart’s early Wunderkind sonatas so much that we thought of looking at these early sonatas by Mendelssohn, which also have almost this sense of innocence and of figuring out what makes a sonata work.
What decisions did you make about period instruments and historically informed practice?
AI: I performed on my instrument (c. 1775 Anselmo Bellosio) using wound gut strings and a light bow. With a heavier bow or metal strings, I would have not felt as comfortable.
CT: We considered at the start whether to use a fortepiano—that’s an approach I definitely love—or a modern instrument. We decided to go with a regular Steinway D, but we worked with the sound engineer Oscar Torres to bend the sound toward a clarity and sparkle similar to the fortepiano—a crisp tone that is not too mellow.
Were there any usual circumstances about the recording?
AI: It was during Covid! We recorded in a big church in North London [Saint Silas the Martyr, Kentish Town] during the second wave, at the end of January 2021. Cédric lived in my house for the time, so we were like a bubble. And then in the church, the sound engineer and the producer were in different rooms. So we didn’t see each other much.
CT: Yes, which is very different from the other recordings. Because especially with our producer, Andrew Keener, we are a very close team. We always spend a lot of time talking, laughing, having dinners, and enjoying a real friendship. So this was a frustrating process because we had to keep far away from each other.
Everyone knows the Violin Concerto in E minor, but why have these violin works been so neglected?
CT: It’s a little bit like what has happened with the rest of Mendelssohn’s music. There are some hits, but there are so many works that very few people play. You find the same thing with his solo piano music, for which his output was absolutely huge. Listen to the last movement of the F major Sonata from 1838—it just sparkles like champagne and happiness! Maybe because there is a little bit of lightness in the music, some people have a bias and don’t take it seriously. But it is not true that the music is always so “light.” Take the fragment that comes at the end of this recording. The music is stunning, the harmonies and the depth here are spectacular. Of course, it’s unfinished, so some people might say we should not perform it…
What light do the violin sonatas shed on our understanding of Mendelssohn’s approach to the violin? How did his style evolve to that last one?
AI: I think this is more chamber music, while with the Violin Concerto there are more effects, if you like—tremolos, etc.—so the concerto is flashier, I suppose. The music is virtuosic but maybe in a different way. It’s virtuosic between us. The writing is very fresh, but you feel that it is early, that he is maybe still experimenting a bit with the form.
Where do you think these sonatas rank? Should they really be part of the regular violin sonata repertoire?
AI: I think they need very much to be played more often. The last one, the big Sonata in F major of 1838, is already becoming part of the repertoire, though the other two are very neglected and the second one in F minor especially needs a lot more attention—and, hopefully, will be getting that soon. And, for me, the slow movements are absolutely overwhelming; they move me every time we play them.
CT: After the Beethoven sonatas, which make up a major cycle for violin and piano, a milestone, suddenly you have these sonatas by Mendelssohn. I don’t think they should be compared to the Beethoven sonatas. This is a blurred time, and Mendelssohn takes a different way, where he’s not writing anymore in the Classical style, but it’s not yet completely Romantic. I think Mendelssohn was experimenting, as Alina said. So there’s a lot of Sturm und Drang, there is a lot of invention and trying to break from the roots of the Classical style. I think they are absolutely marvelous pieces.
We tend to think of Mendelssohn primarily as a virtuoso pianist, but he took up the violin at the age of 10 (a surprise for his father) and was closely associated with leading violinists of the era. How does this play out in terms of the way he balances the violin and piano parts? What relative role does virtuosity play for each instrument?
AI: Mendelssohn writes very well for the violin, but he makes it less difficult for us than for the piano. He is good at being virtuosic and not overly demanding. To me, the sonatas are basically piano concertos. In the last sonata he has quite a lot of fun, giving us lots of semiquavers [16th notes] and making us chase each other.
CT: These sonatas are not as demanding, I would say, as the Schumann violin and piano sonatas, for example, where the writing is less comfortable. Here, everything comes quite easily. It’s quite interesting, because our last big recording project was the complete Mozart violin sonatas, which are definitely sonatas for piano with violin; sometimes, with the early sonatas, even with violin ad libitum. I think Mendelssohn wanted the two instruments to be in complete dialogue. Sometimes the piano is the first one to take a new theme, a new section, but it really is a game between the two instruments. There are moments like the finale to the 1838 Sonata, which is a highlight of the recording, that remind me of the last movements of the piano concertos, with endless semiquavers. But I would say the relationship between the two instruments is really quite equal.
AI: Mendelssohn is one of a kind. There is so much joy and an almost operatic lyricism with him. How he expresses happiness or pain can be so personal and intimate.