Love amid Innovation: Violinist Tai Murray’s interpretation of Eugene Ysaye’s Six Sonatas for Solo Violin op. 27

By Daniel Garrett

Tai Murray, Eugene Ysaye’s Six Sonatas for Solo Violin, op. 27
Producers Robina Young and Brad Michel
Harmonia Mundi, 2012

The violinist Tai Murray’s performance of Eugene Ysaye’s Six Sonatas for Solo Violin has a fine tension—delicate, sinewy, taut, a mood of deep mystery. Tai Murray creates an exquisite sound—modern, edgy, ricocheting—that rises and falls with sudden shifts and delivers the listener to another dimension. It is a fulfillment of her promise: Tai Murray, reared by a single mother in a supportive family, was a prodigy who began violin lessons around the time she was five, and performed Mozart with the Chicago symphony at nine. She has performed with Marin Alsop, Richard Goode, Benjamin Schwartz, and Mitsuko Uchida, and with orchestras around the world. Tai Murray now lives in Berlin.

Tai Murray, accepting the discipline required of a serious artist, studied as a girl with Yuval Yaron, and was a graduate of Indiana University and Juilliard; and some of the teachers she met in Indiana—Josef Gingold, Franco Gulli—had known the violinist-composer Eugene Ysaye, a significant figure in the music of Belgium and France, a joyful though ill musician, whose late-life six sonatas for solo violin were tributes to Bach and Debussy and the violinists Eugene Ysaye admired. Eugene Ysaye, himself a prodigy, was a composer, conductor, teacher, and advocate for new music; and Eugene Ysaye, according to the doctoral research of violinist Erin Aldridge (a student of Vartan Manoogian), combined the innovations of Nicolo Paganini—the use of fingered octaves and tenths and double harmonies—with Ysaye’s own preference for quarter-tones, double stops of whole tones, and lengthy arpeggios. “The two underlying feelings that I get from these sonatas are joy and love: love for his instrument, love for Bach, and love for his friends. So it is an opus of love and expression,” declared Tai Murray, as quoted by (May 22, 2012).

Sometimes Tai Murray’s violin sound is so large it almost sounds like a cello—or like more than one instrument. Murray can play with speed, without losing tone; and she can play slowly, sadly, suggesting great stillness, allowing for meditation. The puckish plucking is amusing. The sound is rich; and the work seems both traditional and modern. Romantic? Sweeping? Dramatic. Intricately evolving. Somber, strange, suspenseful. It is music that encourages the listener to think and to dream; and is greatly expressive throughout.

Sonata 1, in four parts, could be said to begin in contemplated sorrow as the strings seem to go in two or more directions at once, as if someone is in a worried mood, easily conveying a sense of depth—of something genuine, mysterious, important. So many quick, subtle shifts—texture. The last part has a quicker tempo, which may be more frenzy than joy. Sonata 2, also in four parts, has a fast introduction followed by something somber; and yet qualities speculative and playful emerge in the third part, though it has its own gravity before achieving an operatic drama. The last movement is angular, tense. Sonata 3 begins at what seems a high point of intensity; and for such a short, one-part piece, it is remarkably complex—an obvious reason for a musician to want to play it. Sonata 4 has a whole, rich sound—it really could be more than one instrument the listener is hearing. The quieter plucking is so different—so simple and strange as to seem newly modern. There is almost a fragmentary quality to this three-part sonata, in terms of structural and tonal variety. Sonata 5 has a nearly oriental melancholy and sense of space, with imaginative movement—it is hard to believe this music was written down, as it has such speed and intensity, such fervor. Sonata 6 is dramatic, even melodramatic, and full of turns.

Daniel Garrett, a graduate of the New School for Social Research, and the principal organizer of the Cultural Politics Discussion Group at Poets House, is a writer whose work has appeared in The African, All About Jazz, American Book Review, Art & Antiques, The Audubon Activist, Black Film Review, Changing Men, Cinetext, Contact II, Film International, The Humanist, Hyphen, Illuminations, Muse Apprentice Guild, Option, Pop Matters, Quarterly Black Review of Books, Rain Taxi, Red River Review, Review of Contemporary Fiction, Wax Poetics, and World Literature Today. Daniel Garrett has written extensively about international film for Offscreen, and comprehensive commentary on music for The Compulsive Reader. He has an internet log, “The Art Notes of a Solitary Walker,” focused on visual art. He has written a novel, A Stranger on Earth.