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Bela Bartok
Violin Concerto no.1, op. posth.; Violin Concerto no. 2, Sz 112
Isabelle Faust (violin), Daniel Harding conducting the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra

Review By Max Westler


Best Audiohpile Music Of 2014 Blue Note Award  By 1938, Bela Bartok was well aware of the "pestilential cloud" of Nazism threatening his homeland, of "another world catastrophe hanging in the air." In a letter to a friend, he wrote, "there is an imminent danger that Hungary will surrender to this regime of thieves and murderers. The only question is—when and how?" He also knew what his country's capitulation would mean for him personally: "how can I go on living in such a country? As a matter of fact, I would feel it my duty to emigrate."  Of course, he was soon to immigrate, to the United States, where he would continue his lifelong study of ethnic music at Columbia University. Several works of this period clearly reflect the psychic disruption and sense of ominous foreboding Bartok felt at the time: the spooky Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion, and the Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celeste with its seismic shifts and nightmarish adagio (later used to great effect by Stanley Kubrick in The Shining).

Whereas both those works (and several others) speak to Bartok's harrowing present and his uncertain future, the Violin Concerto No. 2, written at about this same time, looks back nostalgically to a happier past and the folk music traditions Bartok spent much of his early manhood collecting, studying, and disseminating. It is one of his most vital and life-affirming works, a conscious effort to "rise above all that" (a phrase of Nietzsche's that Bartok took as his personal motto). Appropriately enough, the concerto opens with a verbunkosmelody, a folk dance with a heroic, march-like character. The music that evolves from this theme has all the footloose impetuosity of a gypsy dance. The haunting "Andante tranquilo" is as tender and breathtakingly beautiful as anything Bartok ever wrote. The finale, on the other hand, is explosively brash. The concerto is as rich as it is unpredictable, a series of "Jack-in-the-Box" surprises.

When Bartok first started thinking about the concerto, he conceived of a single movement set of variations. Bartok was a master of variation, something he'd learned from his study of folk music; he never liked to repeat a theme unchanged. But ZoltanSzekeley, the violinist who commissioned the work, insisted on a traditional three movement work with the first movement in sonata form. Bartok reluctantly agreed, and eventually did produce a concerto drawn to Szekely's specifications. But the composer also got his way. When he brings back the opening themes of the first movement, as sonata form requires, he inverts them into variations. That lovely second movement is, as it turns out, a theme followed by five variations. Bartok also did Szekely one better. The last movement is not the rondo you might expect; it's also in sonata form. But the themes are all freewheeling variations on materials from the first movement. As Bartok wrote to Szekely, "I managed to outwit you. I wrote a variations after all." I'm probably trying the reader's patience by dealing with these technical matters, but it's worth noting the many, splendid ways the concerto is one of a kind: a happy coincidence of cunning ingenuity and inspiration. Small wonder it is one of Bartok's most popular and frequently performed scores.

I cannot say that this new recording by Isabelle Faust and Daniel Harding is the best ever made. Though I've heard (and own) many recordings of the work, it's far from all of them. Over the years, I've had a special fondness for the performances by Yehudi Menuhin with Antal Dorati, Isaac Stern with Leonard Bernstein, Kyung Wha Chung with Sir Rattle, and (more recently) Gil Shaham and Pierre Boulez. And there are still some recordings I haven't got around to hearing, though I very much want to: Thomas Zehetmair with Ivan Fischer, James Ehnes with GianandreaNoseadea. Still, the present recording does just happen to be the greatest performance I have ever heard, and I recommend it urgently, unreservedly, to everyone who loves this work (or wants to know it). Compared to Szekely's strong-hearted but literal-minded performance (the 1938 premiere, with Mengelberg conducting the Concertgebouw, was recorded and preserved), Faust plays with much greater rhythmic freedom and dynamism; she generates an intensity and concentration that are illuminating and deeply affecting. Each variation is fully characterized at no loss of impetus. Indeed, both the first and last movements generate an irresistible sense of thrust and momentum. Daniel Harding has proven to be a Jack-of-all-trades. Lately, he's conducted orchestral works, operas, and also appeared as the accompanist on several concerto recordings. Here he is much more than an accompanist—he's right there with Faust in every measure. I've never heard the orchestral part of this score register with such pure rapture and vivacity. Or to give you a more specific example, I've never heard the braying horns in the last measures shout out with such ferocity and defiance. Together Faust and Harding give us such a "minutely sensitive imaginative response," it's hard to see another recording challenging it anytime soon.

The First Concerto was written in 1908 by a much more Romantic composer still under the influence of Wagner, Liszt, and (Richard) Strauss. The first movement is very much "music that comes straight from the heart" (Bartok's own description), and was intended as a love song to violinist Stefi Geyer, the woman he was head-over-heels in love with at the time. The score's various markings suggest the degree to which Bartok was laying his heart at the feet of the woman he adored: "utterly desolate," "with restrained passion," "always volatile," "as if in a dream," and "with great feeling." The second movement, more kinetic and angular, anticipates later works (from 1911) in which the composer would find his own voice: Two Portraits, the Allegro barbaro, and the opera Bluebeard's Castle. Though the First Concerto is not as complex or as deep a work as the Second, it receives a performance that's no less intense or committed. Faust and Harding make a very winning case for it.

What more do I need to say to convince you to purchase this magnificent recording? The playing of the unsung Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra rises to the high level of the soloist. The sound is demonstration quality, with (for once) a near perfect balance between violin and orchestra. I wish I was one (or both) of the Koch Brothers. Then I could afford to say, "buy this disc, and if you're not completely satisfied, I'll double your money back." But happily, I'm not one (or both) of the noxious Kochs. Still, I think you owe it to yourself to take the plunge. You can always send me a nasty e-mail if you don't like it. But that's not going to happen. Enjoy.





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