Martin Riseley | Diedre Irons

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Martin Riseley (violin)
Diedre Irons (piano)

The variation form is at the foundation of many forms of music, and was of particular importance in the classical period. Stradivariazioni demonstrates various elements of the form: a central unifying theme throughout the long discourse of Schubert’s brilliant Fantasy; the tension release of a set of variations in the last movement of Beethoven’s final violin sonata; the technical possibilities on display by using variations on a theme in Ravel’s Tzigane; and a set of variations by Prock in which each variation captures the composer's idea of a different violin by Stradivari and its unique character.

From the cantus firmus of the 13th century, to the ground bass of the passacaglia, to jazz and the blues; the idea of variation has always been integral to many forms of musical expression. In the Classical period, the Theme and Variations was a form all of its own, but the two works on this disc from that period utilize variation as a key structural device.

In 1803 Beethoven had pushed the very idea of a duo sonata to its limits with the ‘Kreutzer’ Sonata of Opus 47. His next sonata followed nine years later, in 1812, and was written for Pierre Rode, a violinist who is now largely remembered for his pedagogical etudes for the violin, as is Kreutzer. The opus 96 is an entirely different kind of work however, shunning virtuosic display for a more intimate dialogue between the instruments; it is a miracle of understatement and moments of contemplation, and the integration of two such disparate instruments is effortless. From the opening trill, which here is melodic material in itself, through to the theme and variations of the Finale and its brief and tempestuous coda, there is an unending wellspring of originality and scope. The bravura flourishes for both instruments at the very end of the sonata are signatures of the sinfonia concertante, but this is only a conscious echo of the concertante style that generated the ‘Kreutzer’.

Schubert’s output for violin and piano was less prolific than Beethoven’s. He published three Sonatas marketed to amateur musicians as Sonatinas, but at the end of his life gifted us with two extremely difficult masterworks for this combination – the Rondo of 1826 and the Fantasy in C of 1827. Joseph Slavik was the violin virtuoso who inspired these works, though the musical influence of Beethoven’s Kreutzer Sonata can clearly be heard in the Rondo. Paganini was the most famous virtuoso of the day, and made his own trade out of the Theme and Variations form, where the variations followed a pattern designed primarily for technical display. Schubert pushed both instruments to their extreme technical limits in the variations that form the core of the Fantasy, but the purpose was different – he used virtuosity to colour and saturate the texture in ways that eventually reach a critical mass, after which only a return to the contemplative opening is possible.

Ravel was particularly fond of technical display, and used it to colour his orchestral textures acutely. In order to write his Tzigane of 1924, he listened to his friend Jelly d’Aranyi playing the caprices of Paganini. She was the grand-niece of Joseph Joachim, and as the leading Hungarian virtuoso of the day had also played sonatas with Bela Bartok.

Ravel used the Paganini style of virtuosity to create his ideal of the embodiment of the Gypsy – the soaring introduction for violin alone is pure genius, fusing increasing intensity with technical challenges. Paganini’s tricks are liberally sprinkled over the ensuing variations, but here, as in the Schubert, the virtuosity is intended for both instruments, maximizing the overall brilliance.


RAT-D032 (December, 2011)
This recording was made possible with financial assistance from the New Zealand School of Music, Wellington, New Zealand

Produced by Dave Lisik (
Recorded, edited and mixed by Dr. David Lisik at the New Zealand School of Music, Wellington (, assisted by Jack Hooper
Mastered by Steve Garden at the Garden Shed, Auckland, New Zealand
Design by UnkleFranc

  Martin Riseley & Diedre Irons

  1 - 4  Sonata Opus 96  (Ludwig van Beethoven)
    Allegro Moderato  (11:36)
    Adagio Espressivo  (7:07)
    Scherzo: Allegro  (2:28)
    Poco Allegretto  (10:45)

  5 - 9  Stradivariazioni  (Stephan Prock)
    Tema “Stradivari”, con amici  (1:04)
    Le Rossignol: Andante notturno  (3:49)
    Firebird: Allegro Scherzando  (2:14)
    Le Messie: Adagio  (4:39)
    Red Diamond: V: Alard: Vivo  (4:36)

  10  Tzigane  (Maurice Ravel)  (9:45)

  11 - 14  Fantasy in C  (Franz Schubert)
    Andante Molto  (3:39)
    Allegretto  (6:33)
    Andantino: Tempo  (11:41)
    Allegro vivace: Presto (6:42)

  Total (86:39)

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Stradivariazioni was commissioned by Martin Riseley and Diedre Irons for their 2011 tour of New Zealand, and was supported by a grant from Chamber Music New Zealand.  The composition is a Theme and Variations with each variation cast in the form of character piece.  Actually, there are three themes or “ciphers” presented in the Tema (con amici) [Theme (with friends)]. A musical cipher translates letters of the alphabet into musical notes that can then be represented as melodies (or even harmonies).  The B-A-C-H cipher (B natural, A natural, C natural and B-flat in German usage), first used by Bach himself, is perhaps the most famous.  In Stradivariazioni the three ciphers are derived from the surnames of those who inspired the piece: Stradivari, Riseley and Irons.  Throughout the ensuing movements, these ciphers are subjected to various manipulations and combinations.  Though not always immediately recognizable, they intimately connect the various movements to each other.

The individual variations themselves bear names of actual Stradivarius violins still in existence today, and I have tried in each movement to capture an essence or aspect either of the violin itself (the colour of the varnish, individual details of scrollwork, sound quality) or a resonance with its given name and history.  In Le Rossignol, I evoke the nightingale’s song emanating from within the shadows of the forest at night.  The Firebird directly references (and simultaneously distorts) particular musical elements from Stravinsky’s ballet.  Le Messie presented a particular challenge because of its curious history.  In 1827, the heirs of the great violin collector Count Salabue sold a 1716 Stradivarius violin to another notable nineteenth-century collector named Luigi Tarisio.  Tarisio was so enamoured of the violin that he boasted about its special qualities to his Parisian dealers and acquaintances but steadfastly refused to bring it with him to Paris from his home in Italy to let anyone see or play it.  This state of affairs so exasperated the great violinist Jean-Delphin Alard that he unwittingly gave the violin its current name when he blurted out one evening in frustration, “Ah ça votre violin est donc comme le Messie; on l’attend toujours, et il ne parait jamais.” [Ah, that violin of yours is like the Messiah; one endlessly waits for him, and yet He never appears.]  In this variation then, I explore the themes of waiting and desire, particularly through the use of unresolved dominant-seventh chords, which in classical harmony create strong expectations for resolution, but in this movement never resolve to their expected tonics. If you detect echoes of Wagner’s Tristan Prelude (another piece – perhaps the most famous one – that deals with musical desire by thwarting resolution of dominant-seventh chords to their tonics), you are not mistaken.

The Red Diamond violin is the subject of the fourth variation. The violin gets its name from its radiant ruby-coloured varnish, and has an even more colourful and dramatic history behind it.  The story was recounted by Neil A. Grauer in 1995 in his article “Heavenly Strings”:

On Jan. 16, 1953, as a violent rainstorm pelted Los Angeles, Sascha Jacobsen, concertmaster of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra, was driving along the coastal highway to Pacific Palisades, the Red Diamond in its case beside him. His car stalled near Santa Monica and water from an overflowing stream began to surround the vehicle and fill it up. Seeking to escape the flood, Jacobsen grasped his violin case, stepped from the car into the rising waters and struggled through the torrent to higher ground. The Red Diamond was swept from his arms and out to sea as he barely made his way to safety. He watched, helpless, as the violin case floated away.

The next day, a prominent Los Angeles attorney, Frederick H. Sturdy, was walking along the beach of the Bel Air country club and spotted a violin case stuck in the sand. Inside the case he found slime, sand, water--and the pieces of a violin. By amazing coincidence, Sturdy was a friend of Alfred Wallenstein, music director of the Philharmonic. When he learned the following day of Jacobsen's disaster and the loss of the Red Diamond, Sturdy immediately contacted Wallenstein. Identified as the lost Strad, the salt water-logged and sand-encrusted violin parts were entrusted to Hans Weisshaar, an outstanding luthier. Over the next nine months, Weisshaar painstakingly restored the violin, returning it to its "former glory...both in tone and appearance," Jacobsen later wrote in appreciation. He told friends the Red Diamond sounded "better than ever."[1]

The “Red Diamond” variation is thus something of a musical depiction of the dramatic storm and flood resulting in the temporary loss of the 1732 Stradivarius violin.

The concluding movement of the set, is named after and evokes the 1715 “Alard” violin (owned at one time by violinist Jean-Delphin Alard).  The “Alard” has been called the ne plus ultra of Stradivarius violins.  According to the Hill brothers, who published a book on the life and work of Stradivarius in 1902, it is unique among its siblings for its “combination in one violin of absolute beauty of quality [i.e., tone], great volume and perfect articulation.”[2] All of these qualities are called into play in the final variation, in which the original “Theme” (and its attendant ciphers) is reprised most directly in a rhapsodic epilogue.

[1] Grauer, Neil. “Heavenly Strings,” in Cigar Aficionado. Posted 1 December, 1995. (accessed 23 May, 2011).


[2] Antonio Stradivari: His Life & Work (1644-1737), W. Henry, Arthur F. & Alfred E. Hill, William E. Hill & Sons, London, 1902.