Known and praised for his complete recording of all J. S. Bach’s sonatas and partitas, European virtuoso Thomas Bowes has now taken it upon himself to embark on another quest for totality. This time, it is the six sonatas by Belgian violinist Eugène Ysaÿe (1858-1931), presented on Bowes’ new album, EUGÈNE YSAŸE: SIX SONATAS FOR SOLO VIOLIN.
Today, Thomas is our featured artist in “The Inside Story,” a blog series exploring the inner workings and personalities of our composers and performers. Read on to discover how cricket might have easily changed his trajectory.
If you weren’t a musician, what would you be doing?
I was a late starter with serious violin study, so I actually had a moment in my mid-teens when I started to think ‘what the hell am I going to do with my life?’. Yes, I had started learning to play the violin at age seven and the household I grew up in was very musical – and I’m told I asked to start lessons. But I got as far as being a moody 16 year-old before the penny dropped and I turned seriously to the violin. And even then there was one final summer – that of 1976, I remember it so well – when given a little more encouragement I might seriously have tried to make a career as a sportsman. I could run fast over 200 and 400 metres and won a few regional races but more than that I was quite passionate about cricket. (A game utterly mysterious to most Americans I know – just think of it as Baseball in a straight line played over days at a time). And for cricket I had an ability to bowl (that’s pitch to you over the pond) at quite a speed. Over the legendarily dry and hot British summer of 1976 I bowled my way to some notoriety and given a mentor who had really driven me to take my talent seriously perhaps I might have made a career in the game – who knows! In my dreams I would have been like this bloke:
I still follow the game. But of course, had I gone with it my career would have been over and done with now. The moody 16 year-old made a late call, but probably the right one.
Do you have any specific hopes about what this album will mean to listeners?
I hope above all that people will get a sense of what a huge presence Ysaye’s was. After a hundred years and more of recorded music we’ve now got used to recordings impressing with accuracy and brilliance. This has probably tilted the way we make music more than we know. Ysaye is from the last generation of performers who came from another direction entirely. He created a living impression in his listeners and one that clearly went on living in the memory of those who heard him. This is quite opposite to being ‘impressive’. It was intensely human. And if these pieces are the essence of his own playing – he wrote them as his abilities were starting to leave him – then they ought to recreate something of this magic. The more I read about him the more I liked him. He was anything but a perfect human being, yet he aspired all his life to do great and good things and to honour friendships and his family. He got into trouble with love, he had great anxiety with his playing, but like a true hero, he kept going, trying to do and be better. I think of him as a wounded giant – always trying to overcome doubts, obstacles, temptations and ultimately a failing body, until the end.
What were your first musical experiences?
My mother singing to me. She had a beautiful voice. I can hear it now.
How do you prepare for a performance?
With a mixture of mad panic and total organisation.
Where and when are you at your most creative?
Well I do love the recording process when it allows for a bit of magic to happen – things that are unplanned, mysterious, beyond calculation. I’m told I’m definitely at my most creative when things are just a little out of control. But who in their right mind really likes this feeling? So much of the pressure on performers can push us to the ‘defensive’ – doing what we have planned, doing what all the best research recommends and allowing ourselves to feel only what we need to ‘produce the goods’. But this approach as the only way can quickly ossify and prevent the really inspired thing from coming in. So, I like not to be in my ‘right mind’. Once the ground work is done – if you like the mould, I want to pour into that mould something as hot, molten and bubbling as possible; to go as crazy, or put another way, to be absent and simply be receptive to what’s there. But it’s terrifying and exhilarating at the same time. I’m so pleased to have been able to work with someone who knows me as well as Stephen Frost does. With him as producer, these moments, or if one is lucky, extended moments, are allowed to happen. Then, anything is possible.
What are your other passions besides music?
Well there’s cricket (oh dear) as I mentioned earlier. And yes, it is a passion. This is terrible at times because games last so long. Every two years there is this series of matches between England and Australia, ‘The Ashes’ – five games each of five days – played over a period of ten weeks or so. Do you know how difficult it is to get any work done during these times? There’s also literature and all the arts. I’m a great lover of poetry and painting. My father was an amateur creator in both media and he inspired me to love these things. I love the epic thing too. Wagner’s Ring Cycle is relatively recent for me, for instance, but Milton’s ‘Paradise Lost’ or TS Eliot’s ‘Four Quartets’ have been things to go to at times of stress – like now with this pandemic. I love our wild garden here in the English countryside and would love to spend more time in it. I adore old buildings, old houses, places of worship and I’m a lover of all things Italian. The odd glass of a great Bordeaux. Good English Ale (no, it’s not warm, it’s at just the right temperature).
Who are your musical mentors?
Here are a few in no particular order: Furtwangler, Menuhin, Enesco, Bob Marley, Ysaye, Kleiber, JS Bach, Elgar, Nat King Cole.
EUGÈNE YSAŸE: SIX SONATAS FOR SOLO VIOLIN is available now from Navona Records. Click here to visit the catalog page and explore this album.