The French violinist explores how to create an orchestra of abstract colours and characters in the first movement of Ravel’s last chamber work

French violinist Philippe Graffin photographed by Marije Van Den Berg

Philippe Graffin - c.Marije Van Den Berg

Although Ravel wrote this Sonata for his great friend and unrequited love, the French violinist Hélène Jourdan-Morhange, it was Enescu who gave its premiere. As a child, Yehudi Menuhin studied with Enescu in Paris, and he once told me that Ravel turned up unannounced to one of his lessons, to ask Enescu to play this new Violin Sonata to his publisher. Enescu sightread through it in front of Menuhin, then closed the music and played the whole piece again by heart!

I find it fascinating how Ravel uses the relationship between the violin and the piano in this work. It’s very modern for its time, far from the idea of the Franck Sonata, where the piano accompanies as the violin sails through. Violinist Renaud Capuçon recently commissioned a very good orchestration of it by Yan Maresz, which makes interesting listening. It conjures the sound world that Ravel might have had in his head when he wrote it, and helps us to share in that world in our imagination.

Imagining an orchestra

Ravel was dubious about the compatibility of the violin and the piano, but he did wonders in matching them here. The piano part itself is, I think, based on material originally intended for piano and orchestra. Its sonorities in the opening section are so imaginative that it is as though it becomes an orchestra.

The violin also has different roles: before figure 1 it could be a string section; after figure 1 it is suddenly a harp providing colour and context to the piano. For this you can bow closer to the fingerboard and use the resonance of the open strings. In bar 36 it is a muted trumpet, with each accent emphasised just slightly to give a sense of provocation and interruption – as though you are putting your thumb to your nose and moving your fingers like a trumpeter, as a naughty kid might do.

From bar 41, the espressivo is a little bit bitter, like a bassoon, and playing it on the G string helps to bring out that quality. Then at figure 11 the violin becomes a cor anglais – the saddest of all instruments, and one that features often in Ravel’s orchestral works.

Ravel cover

To see the marked-up sheet music, in association with Henle Verlag, download The Strad May 2019 or buy the print edition

A sound without ego

There shouldn’t be any sense of ‘me’ in this music. In Classical works, the ‘me’ mixes with the ‘it’; popular and Romantic music are about individual suffering and full of ego. Ravel’s music is expressive but it is also abstract, with a veil of distance. It is just about ‘it’. We should make a big difference in our sound between this and, for example, Fauré and Franck-period sonatas.

Ravel grew up in a world where violinists, such as Lucien Capet and Pablo de Sarasate, used the bow with a lot more imagination than we do today. In this sonata our vibrato can be shy, ethereal and a little restrained as we use bowings to bring out the ambiguity of Ravel’s expression.

Colour and character

The character of the piano is very free in the opening passages of this movement, without any real harmony or bass ground. When the violin voice sneaks in from bar 7, it is in the same tessitura as the piano, with an equal sense of freedom and motion. It reminds me of a wonderful video on YouTube, of Ferenc Fricsay rehearsing Die Moldau: when he is discussing the dialogue between two flutes at the beginning of the piece, he tells a story of two worms emerging from the earth to enjoy the sun. When one of them starts to flirt, the other says, ‘But stop it, you idiot: I’m your tail!’ It is the same here, when the violin comes in on the same ground.

This violin entry is slightly articulated and almost a pickup to bar 8, where it is as though, on that homely, cosy E, you take something very dear and sweet in your arms. Try to match the sound of the piano after each key has been pressed, for a bodiless, tender resonance. Almost immediately, in bar 10, the piano answers with a threatening, devilish figure, and visions of a darker world start to interfere with the peaceful scenery. I stay in second position through this passage, to make it more legato.


Masterclass - soloist panel

From bar 13 there is a sense of thirst around the pedal G in the violin – the first note of each up bow is more breathless and urgent. Until now we have been walking slowly to an unknown destination, free from weight or form. Suddenly, in bar 14, we arrive somewhere for the first time. To give a sense of dance here, gently emphasise the first note of each tie. After the harp-like passage from bars 17–22, you can bring the bow closer to the bridge again, more in the foreground as you revisit the ideas from the opening. From bar 30 bring out the more generous, singing quality, which is at the same time indulgent and nostalgic.

I’ve played this piece at various tempos and I don’t think that there is any ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, but it is important not to lose speed from figures 3–5. The passages leading up to this are full of painful dissonance, but here the music is soothing and tender. For me there is something sad and nostalgic in this whole episode, as though we have to accept that time is passing too quickly by. We shouldn’t try to make it glorious or beautiful.

From figure 4 the violin opens up hopefully to the F sharp (bar 93), and then resigns to the E. I play a D harmonic in bar 96, to show that it belongs to the next line of the piano and is not really its own ending. In bar 109 the snake-like muted-trumpet motif returns, in this collage of different moods; then at figure 6, the violin is secondary again. Keep the E flats at the end of each slur in bar 118 a little detached, to give it a sicilienne feeling.

Suddenly from bar 122, the ‘orchestra’ becomes very busy. I try to use the same colour from bars 123–124, by staying in one position. This is very dangerous for intonation and I prefer to spread my hand for security, with an extension of a 10th between the F and the A. If you can hold this stretch and use a fast bow speed, it will allow the bow to sing in a more intense, abstract way – like a small child lost in a forest, calling for help from very far away.

From bar 125 the sound can resemble the first violin entrance in bar 7, although now it can be more concrete. Use the tip to the middle of the bow, towards the fingerboard, until the crescendo into complete chaos from bar 151.

Here again the intonation is very challenging. My suggestion is to keep the D sharp from the last note of bar 147 down on the string and not to shift but to stretch your hand around it, for safety. Start with large bow strokes for the tremolo, so that you are as loud as you can be, close to the bridge but not ponticello, with a lot of strength. It is difficult to keep this up for a long time, so change to a wrist tremolo when you can.

Visions of a darker world start to interfere with the peaceful scenery

If you need more power to compensate, move closer to the bridge and use more pressure. As you approach figure 10, you can become more ponticello, as though you are a percussion instrument; then return to a normal sound from the crescendo in bar 168. Try to imagine that tremolo motif still playing underneath the sad, expressive ‘cor anglais’ phrase from figure 11, so quietly that you can barely hear it, to give a sense of fantasy and tension as you accept destiny – touchingly, but without rubato.

Philippe Graggin Fiddler's Blues

Philippe Graffin’s CD Fiddler’s Blues, featuring Ravel’s Second Violin Sonata, is a Strad Recommends recording.

There is a decrescendo from forte into figure 14, but I suggest practising with a crescendo to the E of bar 203. If Ravel hadn’t written a diminuendo and mezzo piano here, that is what everyone would do. When you return to his markings, keep the feeling of that lost crescendo, as if to taint the music with hope. Then follow the shape of the slow piano arpeggio in bar 203 with your sound and vibrato, so that you bloom before dropping to the G, with a sense of release as you prepare for the expressive harmony to follow.

A steady bow arm to end

For the last two lines of this movement, your bow should get slower and slower, never making more sound than the piano. If you do this, it can be difficult to make sure that your bow arm doesn’t shake. Usually when you stop thinking about a shaking bow arm, it gets better, so my advice is to focus on what is happening in the musical moment. If you shake, it’s not the end of the world – it is like your voice shaking with sincerity when you tell someone that you love them. It is more interesting to express yourself, and more important to be true.