Bartok: Violin Concertos Nos.1 & 2
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Bartók: Violin Concertos No. 1 & 2
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One of the great works of the 20th century, Bartok's Violin Concerto No.2 has virtually eclipsed his first effort in the genre, written thirty years earlier. However, this youthful work, inspired by his passionate, unrequited love for the young violinist Stefi Geyer and rediscovered long after the composer's death, deserves to be rediscovered. Isabelle Faust's deep connection to Bartok's music inspired her to explore a variety of original sources in an attempt to get closest to the composer's true intentions. Joined by the insightful Daniel Harding leading the Swedish Radio Symphony, Faust offers definitive readings of these masterworks.
Here is young violinist Isabelle Faust, so brilliant previously with Bach's and Bartok's unaccompanied violin music, doing an exquisite job with the two Bartok violin concertos in the company of the Swedish Radio Symphony and Daniel Harding. Even in one of the more crowded recording fields, this one is a standout. 3.5 STARS --The Buffalo News
The lyrical, late-Romantic heart that beats at the center of all of Bartok's music is clearly expressed by violinist Isabelle Faust and Harding's flawless Swedish orchestra... in this performance the vast range of effects and musical ideas that Bartok presents are breathtaking. --The Rochester Post-Bulletin A stellar new release of the two violin concertos of Belà Bartók. Though there are already many fine recordings of these pieces on the market, Faust s account is compelling and not one to be missed. 5 STARS --The Arts Fuse
The lyrical, late-Romantic heart that beats at the center of all of Bartok's music is clearly expressed by violinist Isabelle Faust and Harding's flawless Swedish orchestra... in this performance the vast range of effects and musical ideas that Bartok presents are breathtaking. --The Rochester Post-Bulletin
A stellar new release of the two violin concertos of Belà Bartók. Though there are already many fine recordings of these pieces on the market, Faust s account is compelling and not one to be missed. 5 STARS --The Arts Fuse
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Faust prepared carefully for these recordings with much research, the findings of which are detailed in her five page essay which accompanies the disc. She has clearly made some significant discoveries; for instance, on consulting the first performance solo part of the first concerto she found some annotations in the composer's own hand, which don't seem to have come to light before. In one of these reference is made quite specifically to the first few notes of the second movement, which Bartók wrote are to be played 'without vibrato'.
The first concerto is less often recorded than the second, but Faust makes as convincing case as possible for it to be brought back into the mainstream repertoire, both in her writing and in her playing. The work is a love-letter to the violinist Stefi Geyer, and the first notes were sketched during their holiday together in the summer of 1907. Geyer declined to perform it however, breaking off their relationship soon after it was finished. Bartók noted in a letter that for him, composition involved the whole self, exhibiting 'more exactly than a biography...the driving passions of a life'. All emotions were admitted, '...grief, rage, vengeance, twisted irony, sarcasm.' Faust here captures both the beauty which the composer idealised, but also the flip-side; the capriciousness and the cool indifference. More lyrical than the second concerto, and written before Bartók had fully absorbed the spikiness and occasional grotesquery of the various folk elements which were later to so engage him, this is a work of brief, svelte enchantment.
Faust has much competition in terms of the second concerto, with particularly strong recordings from Patricia Kopatchinskaja Bartók Eötvös Ligeti, Kyung-Wha Chung Violin Concerto 2 / Rhapsodies 1 & 2 and Isaac Stern Stern plays Tchaikovsky, Bartok amongst many others. In a concerto in which it is tempting to fly to the alternate extremes of either pianissimo or outright frenzy, Faust finds a sort of repose from which she can expose the many colours in this at times contorted and convoluted work. The 'Sleeping Beauty' Stradivarius of 1704 is capable in her hands of producing breathtakingly beautiful legato passages which seem to defy any sense of bow strokes being made at all. On the other hand, when the music spins into a vortex at the climax of the last movement, the full power and majesty of the instrument is unleashed. It's fittingly echoed by the brass in the rarely heard original ending, with a sound which Faust herself describes as like 'the roaring of elephants'. Daniel Harding and the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra take the centre-stage here, in a glorious culmination to a wonderful performance all round.
In the outer movements, like Kyung-Wha Chung's (in both her versions, but even more with Rattle in 1990, Violin Concerto 2 / Rhapsodies 1 & 2 than with Solti in 1976, Violin Concerti 1 & 2), Faust's Bartok is dashing and biting in the urgent moments, but the main difference with the more spacious approaches of Sitkovetsky-Pesek (1990, Violin Concertos 1 & 2) or Shaham-Boulez (1998, Bartók: Violin Concerto No. 2, Rhapsodies Nos. 1 and 2), or even with the very dashing rhapsodic version of Korcia-Oramo (2004, Violin Concerto No 2) is that she doesn't linger in the more lyrical moments. Not that her lyrical moments lack any lyricism and songfulness that I can perceive, but the lyricism is kept flowing and thus, to my ears, made all the more intense. Among the versions I know it is to Stern-Bernstein (1958, Bartok: Violin Concertos Nos. 1 & 2 (Isaac Stern: A Life in Music, Vol. 9)) and Chung-Rattle that Faust-Harding come closest in the first movement, and if Faust's first movement clocks 15:10 to Chung's 15:53, it is only because she remains dashing in the cadenza, where Chung details more. Faust also has some very personal touches, like her swooping glissandos at 3:45, 10:03 and 10:42. She receives strong support from Harding, and he too finds details in Bartok's orchestration and lets you hear them as no-one (that I've heard) before, like the "barking" clarinet glissandos at 2:08 in the first movement. Rattle with Chung also has similar moments (not the same as Harding) and maybe a touch more sonic impact in some of the big brassy outbursts, although Harding is not wanting either. My only qualm then is that his basses are fuzzy.
Faust's second movement is outstanding, atmospheric without any sentimentalism thanks to tempi kept "andante" in the slower sections (it is a theme and variations), and always remarkably close to Bartok's impossibly detailed metronome marks and estimated performance timings. The Finale runs along the same lines as the first movement, alternately urgent and biting and intensely lyrical, with again strong support from Harding and the orchestra, and Faust is up to the music's many moods, including the playfulness and skittishness of the "grazioso" moments. And be prepared for a treat, or maybe a jarring shock: Faust and Harding end not with the customary conclusion (the one commissioner and premiere performer Zoltan Szekely asked Bartok to write so that he wouldn't just stand there and listen to the orchestra alone conclude), but the rare original version. I know only one other recording that does it: Zukerman with Slatkin (Bartok: Violin Concerto No. 2- Alternate Ending / Viola Concerto, Op. Posth.). Too bad Faust didn't do as Zukerman, and repeat the Finale, with both endings. With a TT of 58 minutes, there was plenty of space. Nonetheless, this is one of the best versions of Bartok's Violin Concerto.
As far as tempi are concerned, Faust's first movement of the early 1907 Violin Concerto is less "authentic". Like Isaac Stern, who made the premiere recording of the newly discovered work in 1961 (see link above), or Oistrakh in 1962 (oops. I've exhausted my ten authorized product links - see in the comments section for the next ones), or closer to us Midori and Kremer, Faust takes an expansive tempo, slower than Bartok's metronome, highlighting the ecstatic, time-suspended quality of the first movement, although the orchestra's violins' apparently "senza vibrato" playing on their first entries brings a mood of gloominess anticipating the first movement of Music for Strings Percussion and Celesta. Faust plays with a thin and luminous tone that is entirely appropriate and she and Harding build great romantic intensity in the climaxes. In its alternation of the Scherzando and the languid, the second movement is so Straussian (to the point of sounding almost like a mockery of Strauss) that I think it easily lends itself to an approach of more extreme contrasts of tempi, as Midori did, than what Faust applies. That said, Faust's, greater restraint and discipline also has its arguments, and restraint and discipline don't mean that she doesn't have the required kitsch and dash when needed. Again Harding and the Swedish Radio Orchestra prove themselves perfect partners.
I'm looking forward to the next recording of Isabelle Faust.