Friday, April 17, 2015

Pablo de Sarasate (1844 - 1908)

No. 194 of the ongoing ITYWLTMT series of audio montages can be found in our archives at


The second of our three-part look at the violin concertos of Max Bruch considers one of the greatest violinists and composers for the instrument of his generation, Spain’s Pablo de Sarasate. The playwright and music critic George Bernard Shaw once declared that though there were many composers of music for the violin, there were but few composers of violin music. Of Sarasate's talents as performer and composer, Shaw said that he "left criticism gasping miles behind him".

Pablo Sarasate was born in Pamplona,  the son of an artillery bandmaster. He began studying the violin with his father at the age of five and later took lessons from a local teacher. So well received was his  first public concert at the age of eight that a wealthy patron provided for Sarasate to study under Manuel Rodríguez Saez in Madrid, and laterunder Jean-Delphin Alard at the Paris Conservatoire at the age of twelve. There, at seventeen, Sarasate entered a competition and received the Premier Prix for his instrument at the prestigious institution.

Sarasate’s career took off after his Paris debut in 1860, touring many parts of the world, performing in Europe, North America, and South America. His artistic pre-eminence was due principally to the purity of his tone, which was free from any tendency towards the sentimental or rhapsodic, and to that impressive facility of execution that made him a virtuoso.

In his early career, Sarasate performed mainly showpieces, most notably the Carmen Fantasy, and various other pieces that he had composed in order to demonstrate his exemplary technique. The popularity of Sarasate's Spanish flavour in his compositions is reflected in the work of his contemporaries; like Édouard Lalo's Symphonie Espagnole which was dedicated to Sarasate; Georges Bizet's Carmen; and Camille Saint-Saëns' Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso, written expressly for Sarasate and dedicated to him.

Today’s podcast begins with a selection of chamber virtuoso Spanish dances for piano and violin, again showcasing this month’s violinist James Ehnes. Ehnes is also our featured soloist in Bruch’s second violin concerto which has a link to the Spanish virtuoso.

Indeed, like Lalo, Wieniawski and Saint-Saëns, Max Bruch composed two works for Sarasate; Bruch's Violin Concerto No. 2 in D minor was composed around 1878, dedicated to and premiered in London by Sarasate with Bruch conducting, in November 1878. Less frequently heard than last week’s concerto, Bruch himself regarded the second as at least as fine as the famous first.

Partly because of the poor critical reception of the concerto, Bruch decided to dedicate a second work to Sarasate: his Scottish Fantasy (which, oddly enough, was premiered by Joseph Joachim and not by Sarasate). Since we have already featured the Fantasy on a podcast, I chose to provide here a YouTube video of the work, again featuring James Ehnes and the Montreal Symphony (part of a Juno Award winnin release of both works).

Sarasate died in 1908 from chronic bronchitis. He bequeathed his violin, made by Antonio Stradivari in 1724, to the Musée de la Musique. The violin now bears his name as the Sarasate Stradivarius in his memory. His second Stradivari violin, the Boissier of 1713, is now owned by Real Conservatorio Superior de Música, Madrid. The Pablo Sarasate International Violin Competition is held in Pamplona.

Tomás Bretón (1850 –1923) was a Spanish conductor and composer who lived in Sarasate’s time. Breton was one of the rare Spaniards to write symphonic music as in Spain, orchestral ensembles barely existed. Among his compositions, there is a violin concerto which Bretón dedicated to the memory of Sarasate. This work completes our podcast this week.

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