Masterclass: Philippe Graffin on Ravel’s Violin Sonata no.2

French violinist Philippe Graffin photographed by Marije Van Den Berg

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

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. 

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 …

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