Philippe Graffin - Pijper & Escher: Violin Sonatas

A Dutch violin recital
I love Holland. I was fortunate enough to study there and came to admire its musical life, with its concert halls always full and its incredible musicians whose knowledge and imagination have inspired the world for decades.
It was while studying in Utrecht that I was introduced to Willem Pijper’s music, as well as other Dutch composers of the 20th century, by the pianist Ton Hartsuiker, then director of the conservatory and a passionate advocate of his native music. I never forgot this first impression and the notion that this was a fascinating world, full of composers whose names were anything but familiar to me, but were nonetheless extremely accomplished and original.
As we were making this recording in this snowy days of late December in the beautiful old town of Schiedam, Holland’s musical world was in a state of crisis, with many orchestras under immediate threat. We thought about the young musicians and how worried they must be about what place, if any, they will have in the society of the future. Somehow in the midst of this turmoil we felt that we wanted to express our personal feelings.
The Christmas carol ‘Midden in de winternacht’ is very popular in the Netherlands and seemed somehow appropriate. It is, however, actually Catalan. Perhaps in this there lies some hope: let us hope that these works will find their way into programmes abroad, and that other musicians and audiences will love them too.
© Philippe Graffin, 2011
Destruction, hope, resurrection: this was the central theme of the Gergiev Festival 2010. The pieces on this CD – with the exception of Pijper’s First Violin Sonata and the Sonata for solo violin –were performed by Griffin and Blanken at this festival on 4 September 2010 in Rotterdam. The four Dutch composers, Voormolen, Escher, Pijper, and De Leeuw, were all touched, directly or indirectly, by the horrors of the Second World War. Voormolen’s Pastorale appeared in 1940, the year that Rotterdam was bombarded by the German Luftwaffe. A great number of Escher’s compositions went up in flames, and the war would later have a strong influence on the composer’s works. Willem Pijper, as a Rotterdammer and the father of contemporary Dutch music, is the unifying factor in this programme: Voormolen was a fellow student of Pijper’s, Escher studied under him, and De Leeuw in his early years was still influenced by Pijper’s techniques.
Willem Pijper: Sonata for violin and piano no.1 (1919)
Willem Pijper was in his time one of the most important representatives of contemporary Dutch music.
In the First Sonata for violin and piano, Pijper is still very close to the late works of Debussy. The beginning of the first movement is vaguely reminiscent of Debussy’s Violin Sonata. The second movement, a light-hearted waltz, is striking for its polymetrics. The beginning of the third movement is characterized by an almost continuous motoric movement in both the violin and the piano parts, with the use of bitonality. The flirtation with Mahler is clearly audible in the sudden entry of the Adagio molto. In the first sonata, Pijper applies a cyclical principle, as for example Cesar Franck did: a melody, or part of one, is reused throughout the entire piece and changes form several times.
Sonata for solo violin (1931)
Willem Pijper, then president of the Dutch National Section of the ISCM (International Society for Contemporary Music), composed an unaccompanied violin work in 1931, which he brought to the Hungarian violinist Zoltan Szekely in Nijmegen. Szekely studied it, then played it for him, and the composer dedicated this Sonata for solo violin to him. Szekely performed Pijper’s new work at two ISCM concerts in Amsterdam in March 1932.
In the book Székely and Bartók: The Story of a Friendship, by Claude Kenneson, Szekely sheds more light on those performances of the Pijper sonata and shows the warm cooperation between the Hungarian and Dutch musicians and composers of the time:
‘(Hungarian cellist) Pal Hermann attended those ISCM concerts and on 22 March we played in Amsterdam for the organization Kunst voor Allen ("Art for all”). The next day the recital was repeated in the Amsterdam Conservatory. We played Kodaly’s Duo for violin and cello and the first performance in Holland of Ernst Toch’s Divertimento. Pal performed a new unaccompanied work by Bertus van Lier, a pupil of Pijper in Amsterdam and later a conductor, composer and music critic in Utrecht. In those programmes I performed Pijper’s Solo Sonata, and we ended the concerts with the duo version of Bartok’s Romanian Folk Dances.’
Szekely’s career reached its climax on 23 March 1939 with the premiere of Bartok’s Violin Concerto no.2 with the Concertgebouw Orchestra, conducted by Willem Mengelberg. Bartok dedicated this concerto to Szekely. A composer in his own right, Szekely studied composition with Zoltan Kodaly and also wrote a sonata for violin solo.
Sonata for violin and piano no.2 (1922)
The Second Violin Sonata (1922) came into being after Pijper had begun using the much-discussed kiemceltechniek, ‘germ cell technique’, around 1920. Just as an organism arises from a single cell, the entire composition was based on a single element: a number of tones, a harmony, or a rhythm. This technique placed Pijper in the musical avant-garde and distanced him not only from his earlier interest in French impressionism, but also from German Romanticism and his initial interest in Mahler. The use of bitonality and polyrhythm distinguished him from the more traditionally oriented composers of the time.
It becomes clear in the first movement that, harmonically, Pijper has gone further than in the first sonata. The bitonal chord, introduced in the first bar, goes through several transformations in this sonata: first extremely quiet, then hesitant, then determined and severe, before shattering into silence. In the dramatic third movement, the opening chord in the piano part is repeated an almost countless number of times, at an ever-increasing volume, without ever releasing the sustaining pedal.
In 1930, Pijper became director of the Rotterdam Conservatory. This was a magnet for many young musical talents and strengthened Pijper’s central role in Dutch musical life during the pre-war period. Willem Pijper had a great number of students, many of whom later made careers as composers.
Rudolf Escher: Sonata for violin and piano (1950)
Rudolf Escher was a student at the Toonkunst Conservatory in Rotterdam in the 1930s. He studied composition with Willem Pijper from 1934 to 1937, and during this period composed only music for small ensembles. Unfortunately, a great number of these works were lost during the bombing of Rotterdam on 14 May 1940. This devastating experience would later continue to exert a great influence on Escher’s work: ‘[…] You should know, especially after the events in Rotterdam in May of last year, that I experience the inner values of my work […] much more intensely than I did before. It is truly an antidote against the morally destructive effect of such infernal violence.’ (from a letter to his sister Lot and his brother-in-law Jan Schouten, February 11, 1941)
The Dutch musicologist Leo Samama also finds a continued search for ‘freedom, for balance, for a lost Arcadia’ in some of Escher’s post-war work and for this reason considers this music still bound up with thoughts of war and peace. Just like many other composers of that period, Escher looked mainly to French music, partly as an aesthetic reaction to German domination. Maurice Ravel’s sound-world seemed particularly close to Escher during those years.
The violin sonata is characterized –just like Escher’s other music of this period –by the combination of melodies that often retain their own tonality. The polytonality that arises from this results not so much from an urge to be modern at all costs, but rather reflects the composer’s attempt to allow his music to sound through natural means. No note may appear on paper before the composer has given consideration to whether the listener will understand the result.
Although Escher was dissatisfied with the first movement of his violin sonata, the conductor Reinbert de Leeuw finally managed to persuade the composer to retain the movement.
The first movement is unbending and persistent, progressive in its rhythmic density. The second movement is evocative of a sombre lament, but sporadically one can also recognize the sound-world of the French masters. French influence is most clearly audible in the third movement: the predominantly gracious character forms a great contrast with the rest of the sonata and again offers room for relaxation and flexibility.
Alexander Voormolen: Pastorale for oboe (violin) and piano (1940)
The Rotterdam-born composer Voormolen found inspiration in the French masters. This influence was already apparent when he – together with, among others, Willem Pijper – studied in Johan Wagenaar’s composition class in Utrecht. In 1916, he was invited by the French conductor Rhene-Baton to come to Paris. There he met Maurice Ravel and Frederick Delius and began his study of composition under Albert Roussel. His works of this period are based on the harmonic language of French impressionism.
After his studies, his music became more ‘Dutch’, more sober in character. Nevertheless, his music is characterized not only by a form of neo-Classicism, with baroque figures and folk melodies, but by the emotional aspect of Romanticism. The Pastorale, originally written for oboe and strings, combines all these elements. The melody sounds almost improvised with the many embellishments, yet is at the same time embedded in a harmonic language that recalls the sentimental aspects of Poulenc’s compositions.
During the Second World War, Voormolen himself, with oboist Jaap Stotijn, performed this piece in a version for piano and oboe. Later the piece was also frequently performed in an adaptation for violin and piano.
Ton de Leeuw: Sonatina for violin and piano (1955)
Ton de Leeuw, born in Rotterdam, began to explore the background of non-European music in the 1950s. He studied with ethnomusicologist Jaap Kunst and, from 1961 onwards, began travelling to India and Java, among other destinations. Subsequently he criticized what he considered the passive ‘consumer’s mentality’ of the Western listener, allowing himself to become immersed solely in build-ups and climaxes. In eastern music it is more a question of being rather than development. The personality of the composer and the ‘western’ desire to assert oneself comes less to the foreground in this musical culture.
The Sonatina for violin and piano was written on the eve of this style development in De Leeuw’s work. Typical Western elements –climaxes and a spectacular ending full of bravura –are still present in this piece. The Lento middle movement is reminiscent of the charged expressivity of some slow themes in the works of Prokofiev and Shostakovich. Willem Pijper too, via his ‘germ cell technique’, looks on obliquely over De Leeuw’s shoulder.
Jelger Blanken
Translation: Cornelia Golna
Philippe Graffin’s individual style of playing and outstanding achievements have already placed him among the finest of French violinists.
Graffin graduated from the Paris Conservatoire with a first prize at 16. He later studied with Prof. Josef Gingold in Bloomington, Indiana and with Philipp Hirschhorn. In 1987 he was Laureate of the Fritz Kreisler Competition in Austria, since when Graffin’s international career has seen him appear as soloist with major orchestras in the UK and Europe and at many international festivals and concert halls including Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw and the Berlin Konzerthaus.
Graffin is founder and artistic director of ‘Consonances’, the international chamber music festival in St-Nazaire, France, and is regularly invited to appear at major chamber music festivals across Europe and the United States and to the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center. He has appeared in the BBC Proms Chamber Music season and has been invited to be artistic director of several chamber music projects at London’s Wigmore Hall.
A number of composers have written for him. Lithuanian composer Vytautas Barkauskas received the 2004 Lithuanian National Prize for Art for his violin concerto Jeux, which he dedicated to Philippe. David Matthews wrote his Second Violin Concerto for Philippe and Yves Prin, Vassili Lobanov and Philippe Hersant have written solo pieces for him. Philippe has also performed Rodion Shchedrin’s Concerto cantabile under the baton of Mstislav Rostropovich in Moscow to mark the composer’s 70th birthday. Shchedrin has written a concerto for violin and trumpet for Philippe, entitled Concerto parlando.
Philippe Graffin’s other recordings include the complete Chausson chamber music and complete Saint-Saens music for violin, discs of rare French works including the Faure Concerto and, more recently, the Elgar Violin Concerto in the manuscript version coupled with Chausson’s Poème, as well as the Dvorˇak concerto and the world premiere of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s Violin Concerto, and a recital disc of Debussy, Enescu and Ravel.
Dutch pianist and composer Jelger Blanken studied at the Conservatory of Rotterdam, and graduated from the Conservatory of Amsterdam in 2002, as a student of Ludmilla Baslawskaja and Hakon Austbo. In 2002, together with the Canadian cellist Rachel Mercer, Jelger won the prestigious Medal of the Friends of the Concertgebouw and the Eduard van Beinum scholarship.
Jelger has been seen regularly on Dutch concert podiums with a variety of ensembles and in multiple musical theatre productions. Jelger has also performed on the foreign concert circuit in countries such as France, Portugal, Hungary, Slovakia and Estonia, as a soloist, as a chamber music player and as a promoter of contemporary Dutch music.
Accompanying Dutch baritone Henk Neven, he performed in a vast range of Dutch concert halls in 2004 and 2005, also taking part in the chamber music series entitled ‘Members of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra’. Jelger has performed at many international festivals, such as the second Franz Liszt Festival in Utrecht (2006), the Grachten Festival in Amsterdam (2009) and the Dopper Festival (2009, with the Farkas Quintet). In September 2010 he played a programme of Dutch early contemporary pieces in the Gergiev Festival, together with violinist Philippe Graffin.
Jelger works as an accompanist and instrumental coach in the concert series and masterclasses of the ‘International Holland Music Sessions’ (since 2002) and the ‘International Foundation Masterclasses’ in Apeldoorn (since 2007). Through these series, he has played with international young talents from across the world in concert halls all over Europe. Since 2003, he has been an instrumental coach and accompanist at the Royal Conservatory in The Hague.
In 1998, Jelger earned his Master’s degree in Art and Cultural Sciences from the Erasmus University in Rotterdam. He is currently putting the finishing touches to his dissertation on networking and dispositions in the world of modern classical music since 1945 in the Netherlands.

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