Album Review: Bartok, Violin and Viola Concertos

By William Dart

Bartok Violin and Viola Concertos. Photo / Supplied
Bartok Violin and Viola Concertos. Photo / Supplied

The days of Bartok being a feared modernist are over; those terrible times, a century ago, when even the noted critic Ernest Newman castigated the composer's Violin Sonata as the last word in ugliness and incoherence.

Now, with the Concerto for Orchestra being staple repertoire, there must be little objection to the Hungarian taking his place as the fourth "B" alongside those three worthy German gentlemen.

James Ehnes has become a regular soloist with Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra and this persuasive and sweet-toned Canadian violinist could probably draw honey from the most waspish dissonance. However, his new recording of three Bartok concertos - two for violin, with a third for viola - presents some of the composer's most approachable scores.

The First Violin Concerto dates from 1907-08 and is a richly emotional farewell to the romantic century, as well as a bittersweet reflection on Bartok's own short romance with the violinist Stefi Geyer.

Ehnes enjoys the lushness of its opening movement, his wistful portamenti evoking what Bartok described as "times that were happy even if only half-happiness".

The second movement offers Ehnes and the BBC Philharmonic more opportunities for rollicking bonhomie, but reminiscences of those half-happy times are inescapable in the violinist's poignant lines.

Bartok's Second Concerto, which won Sergey Malov the Michael Hill Competition this year, was premiered in 1939. Its first pages, a little like Korngold with a blues twist, invite Slavic passion, although Ehnes' cooler approach works well too. Throughout, soloist and orchestra, under the baton of the marvellous Gianandrea Noseda, make clarity and precision their priority.

The Andante reveals the strengths of the Chandos recording, with Ehnes bringing a real sense of contemplation to passages as close to recitative as they are to song.

Violinists have paired their two concertos with the Viola Concerto before, most famously Yehudi Menuhin. Ehnes, a seasoned violist, plays with a little more flamboyance here, and all the expected flair.

But it does seem unadventurous, in the light of recent scholarship, to use the problematic Tibor Serly edition of Bartok's uncompleted score, when more satisfying versions exist, including one by our own Donald Maurice.

Bartok: Violin and Viola Concertos
(Chandos, through Ode Records)

Stars: 4/5

Verdict: "Attractive Bartok concerto coupling misses out on a Kiwi connection."

- NZ Herald

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