Feeling bullish

sarasateAnd so to Spain, a country that may not have made a huge impression on Europe’s 19th-century nationalist music scene, but did produce one of history’s legendary violinists – Pablo de Sarasate. Naxos Artist Tianwa Yang is featured this month in the final instalment of her cycle of Sarasate’s works for piano and violin (8.572709); her October release, the last in the set of his works for violin solo and orchestra (8.572276), contains two of his famous opera fantasies, those based on Mozart’s Don Giovanni and Weber’s Der Freischütz.

Having made such a thorough survey of Sarasate‘s compositions, we asked Yang to tell us which two questions she would like to have asked the virtuoso, had their paths ever crossed. She said the first would be: “You wrote many fantasies for violin based on different operas. Which opera is your favourite, and why?”

Sarasate’s birthplace might reasonably suggest what his answer would have been. He was born in the Spanish city of bullrunPamplona, home to the famous annual Running of the Bulls, during which intrepid young men submit to being chased through the streets by a group of snorting bulls that are to later appear in the afternoon bullfight. It’s a short hop from there to Bizet’s opera Carmen and to one of Sarasate’s most popular works, his Carmen Fantasy (8.572216), which draws on themes from Bizet’s work.

The technical challenges that litter the piece are the hallmark of Sarasate’s compositions, leading Yang to her second question: “You frequently write in thirds for the violin (particularly in high positions) and for which we ‘normal’ violinists sometimes have to practise to death to get a secure intonation. Do you practise thirds at all?!”

Sarasate had probably provided the answer to this already in his much-quoted comment: “For 37 years I’ve practised 14 hours a day – and now they call me a genius!”

john-bullFurther north in Europe, there’s another bull well known to lovers of early keyboard music. That’s the English composer John Bull (1562-1628), much of whose life remains semi-shrouded in mystery and intrigue, involving kings, queens, espionage and “incontinence, fornication, adultery, and other grievous crimes”, in the words of one of King James I’s emissaries, who denounced Bull after he had fled to the Low Countries in 1613.

There’s a certain irony that, just a century later, another John Bull was created as the national bullwwipersonification for the country: his cartoon figure was stoutly comfortable and much less deviant than his musical predecessor, and was still going strong on a World War I recruitment poster.

ole-bullEven further north, another Bull the Musician resonates closely with Sarasate. Born in Norway and hailed as one of the world’s greatest violin virtuosos, Ole Bull (1810-1880) was dubbed ‘The Nordic Paganini’ and was feted wherever he went. He gave countless concerts in Europe and America. During his heyday, he led an orchestra of a thousand players at the 1869 Peace Jubilee in the American city of Boston, performing in a hall that seated 50,000 listeners. Twenty-five years earlier, Bull had visited Cuba where he produced two works that were the first to incorporate Creole/Cuban melodies into a classical composition. Although a number of parts were lost, reconstruction of the music has been made by the contemporary Norwegian virtuoso, Henning Kraggerud, in Los Recuerdos de la Habana (8.572827).

minotaurThe Naxos label itself, of course, has a bull in its genes. Well, half a bull. I refer to the ancient Greek myth of Theseus and the Minotaur; the latter was a monster – half bull, half human – resident on the island of Crete. Having been helped by the Princess Ariadne to slay the creature, Theseus reneged on his promise to take her with him when he returned to his native Athens, instead dumping her on the island of Naxos during the return journey. Needless to say, Ariadne was pretty cut up by this abandonment, as Monteverdi beautifully portrayed in his Lamento d’Arianna (8.555312-13).

Richard Strauss incorporated the story into his opera Ariadne auf Naxos (8.111033-34), combining seriously beautiful music with slapstick comedy. Fellow German Klaus Heymann, chairman of Naxos, explains how his company’s name was adopted when the record label was founded in 1987 and he was selecting something suitable from a stack of shell companies bearing the names of Greek islands:

“Rhodes, no; Crete, no; Lesbos, obviously no; Naxos – oh, Strauss’ Ariadne auf Naxos. It’s easily pronounced in every language and has classical connotations.”

And, as they say, the rest is history.naxoslogo

Categories: Naxos News