Saturday 4 July 2020

French seasons and a Belgian violinist: I chat to Anna Ovsyanikova about her explorations of violin repertoire and her new disc

Julian Sinani and Anna Ovsyanikova (Photo Anton Phatianov)
Julian Sinani and Anna Ovsyanikova (Photo Anton Phatianov)
Violinist Anna Ovsyanikova and pianist Julia Sinani have a disc out on Stone Records this week, Les Saisons Françaises, of French music for violin and piano, exploring not just well known repertoire but more unusual items. I spoke to Anna recently, via Zoom, about the disc and Anna's love of late 19th and early 20th century music, most notably her researches into the Belgian violinist Mathieu Crickboom (1871-1947).

Les Saisons Françaises is Anna's debut recital disc, and alongside the Violin Sonata by Claude Debussy (1862-1918), there is music by Lili Boulanger (1893-1918) and the lesser-known early sonata by Maurice Ravel (1875-1937), whilst the performance of the Violin Sonata by Francis Poulenc (1899-1963) features the composer's rather different first version of the final movement.

Anna Ovsyanikova
Anna Ovsyanikova
Anna and Julia have collaborated for over 10 years, performing a wide range of repertoire, so this debut CD was rather overdue. Anna and Julia knew that for their first disc, they wanted to record French repertoire, it works well for them, and they connect with the music. The disc's title Les Saisons Françaises suggested contrasting works by four composers and the programme developed organically. Anna and Julia play the Debussy and the Lili Boulanger a lot, and they were keen to perform the Poulenc sonata (it is a work which Anna had performed, but not with Julia).

Ravel's sonata, which dates from 1897, is less frequently performed, but Anna thrives on performing music which is not played that often. It is the only 19th century work on the disc and there is something completely different about it. Ravel abandoned the work after just one movement, so we do not know what he originally intended and it now stands as a single-movement work.

Whilst it is common courtesy to composers to perform their final versions of pieces, Anna was interested in Poulenc's original finale for his Violin Sonata. This was his third attempt at writing a violin sonata, and he had abandoned the previous two. But the violinist Ginette Neveu begged Poulenc for a sonata, and she participated a lot in the work's gestation, so that she was almost a contributor to the piece, and she premiered this version of the work with the composer at the piano in Paris in 1943. Unfortunately Neveu died in a plane crash in 1949 and Poulenc radically revised the sonata in her memory. It is this revised version which Anna would perform in concert, but on disc she wanted to include the version of the finale as played by Ginette Neveu as a tribute to the violinist.

For Anna, the way Poulenc wrote the original finale, one thought interrupts another so that the piece is more disjointed than the revised version, is very much like the current state of the world. She actually prefers the original version, finding it captivating in the way it captures different emotional states.

Ginette Neveu
Ginette Neveu
Lili Boulanger was often ill and for commercial reasons would write pieces in different instrumental combinations. Of the works on the disc, Nocturne was partly inspired by Debussy's L'apres midi d'un Faune and written originally for flute.

As well as performing and teaching, Anna is currently studying for a D.Mus. at the Royal College of Music. She is researching the artistic legacy of the Belgian violinist Mathieu Crickboom. Crickboom's name is known if at all, as the dedicatee of Sonata No. 5 by the Belgian violinist and composer Eugene Ysaye (1858-1931), and as a member of the Ysaye Quartet, Crickboom gave the premiere of Debussy's String Quartet in 1893 and the String Quartet by Cesar Franck (1822-1890) in 1890. Crickboom also left a great deal of pedagogical material which is still used today, but his personality and career span so much more. Despite living until 1947, Crickboom did not leave any recordings which means that his performing legacy has all but disappeared.

Eugene Ysaye dedicated each of his six sonatas for solo violin to six major violinists of the time (Joseph Szigeti, Jacques Thibaud, Georges Enescu, Fritz Kreisler, Mathieu Crickboom, Manuel Quiroga), and Ysaye clearly included Crickboom in this list for good reasons. Crickboom spent nine seasons as the director of the Philharmonic Society in Barcelona and very much revolutionised the music scene there. He moved the repertoire from one heavily based on opera to a symphonic one, including the first complete cycle of Beethoven symphonies. And he also introduced performances of high quality chamber music, something that Crickboom was very interested in thanks to his membership of the Ysaye Quartet. As a performer in Spain, Crickboom played with the Catalan cellist Pablo Casals (1876-1973), and with composers Enrique Granados (1867-1916) and Isaac Albeniz (1860-1909). When he returned to Belgium, Crickboom started his own magazine and through this influenced the minds of the Belgian people, something that Anna finds fascinating.

For Anna, Crickboom's own compositions are beautiful, but these are all either out of print or unpublished, so that has meant exploring the archives. Anna describes Crickboom's music as enchanting to perform, and she finds is puzzling that no-one else seems to perform it. Her research has been a long, hard process, including having to learn French to a decent level and also to decipher documents in Catalan. But she has found the whole process very interesting, and hopes that something useful for everyone will emerge as a result. As well as doing a D.Mus she is also hoping to record some of Crickboom's music.

Mathieu Crickboom in 1905
Mathieu Crickboom in 1905
Whilst Schotts have re-published Crickboom's teaching material, his own compositions remain out of print (Schotts published Crickboom's music during the period 1908 to 1950), but Anna is hoping that they might be persuaded to re-publish Crickboom's concert pieces.

Anna came to the UK to study when she was 18. Prior to that she was a pupil at the Rimsky-Korsakov Pre-Conservatory School-College in St Petersburg, Russia. Though once in the UK she did not entirely abandon the Russian school of violin playing as her teacher was Russian (though she had left a long time ago). As an 18-year-old in a new country, Anna is grateful that her teacher was warmly supportive and like a mother to her.

Since Anna herself started teaching she has had to re-consider how she teaches, using teaching strategies that are rather different to those she experienced in Russia, based a lot on fear. Anna feels that every teacher should ask the question, how do they inspire each individual rather than creating a set of rules which apply to everyone. Some pupils need a bit of a push, some encouragement, and this was rather lacking in her tuition in Russia. But nonetheless she is very grateful to her Russian teachers as they got her where she is today.  The school in St Petersburg was very competitive, it was a specialised school for those going on to the conservatory and the atmosphere had an unhealthy level of competition, with people comparing themselves to class-mates, thinking 'you'll never be as good'.

Anna used to teach at the Junior Guildhall, but she has left that post as she felt that the balance between performing, teaching and research in her life was not quite right. She enjoys inspiring young players, but at the time teaching was coming take too much of the balance. And as a freelance player life can be tricky. She often plays at the Royal Opera House, and as such will be engaged for a run of operas or ballets, which means that this takes up most of her time. Luckily she is a great lover of opera and ballet, and it gives her great pleasure to perform them. She feels that before lockdown, the balance between the different elements of her life were getting about right, including the right work-life balance. As a freelance player you have to learn to say no to some things, but she admits that right now after two months of lockdown, she would take any gig, it would be so nice to play with another musician.

When I ask Anna about her influences, she says that the first time she heard the playing of French violinist Christian Ferras (1933-1982) she was blown away by the intensity of the sound, and both with him and with Ginette Neveu it is the intensity of their playing which fascinates her.

Even before starting to research and play Mathieu Crickboom's music she was leaning towards that period and repertoire. When she was 16 she went to a Summer masterclass in Switzerland where the teacher was Vartan Manoogian who had studied with the great Romanian violinist and composer Georges Enescu (1881-1955). Manoogian not only told amazing stories, but introduced her to the repertoire which would mean a lot to her, Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953), Ernest Chausson (1855-1899), and Ysaye, including Sonata No. 5 which introduced her to Mathieu Crickboom. Interestingly, Ferras and Neveu also studied with Enescu.

Les saisons Francaises - Anna Ovsynikova, Julia Sinani - Stone Records

Looking ahead, the idea of a Mathieu Crickboom disc appeals, though she has already recorded some material for her D. Mus. She feels that the idea appeals of doing not just a Crickboom disc, but also a disc of Belgian composers with a strong connection to Crickboom. The only piece that Crickboom wrote that is not for violin and piano is a song cycle, and Anna is interested in trying to get this onto her possible Crickboom disc. She has already edited and typeset the work from manuscript, and she has performed some songs in her own transcriptions for violin and piano.

The Belgian library, KBR, has started digitising a lot of its Crickboom material, which is helpful, and Anna plans to get a catalogue of Crickboom's works on her own website.

Les saisons Francaises - Debussy, Lili Boulanger, Ravel, Poulenc - Anna Ovsyanikova, Julia Sinani - Stone Records

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