Classical Reissue Reviews

BEETHOVEN: Violin Sonata No. 9 “Kreutzer”; BARTOK: Rhapsody No. 1; Violin Sonata No. 2; DEBUSSY: Violin Sonata in G Minor – Joseph Szigeti, violin/ Bela Bartok, p. – Pristine Audio

A brilliant moment of musical history from 1940 returns to us in sonic glory, with Szigeti and Bartok at the height of their respective powers.

Published on September 20, 2012

BEETHOVEN: Violin Sonata No. 9 “Kreutzer”; BARTOK: Rhapsody No. 1; Violin Sonata No. 2; DEBUSSY: Violin Sonata in G Minor – Joseph Szigeti, violin/ Bela Bartok, p. – Pristine Audio

BEETHOVEN: Violin Sonata No. 9 in A Major, Op. 47 “Kreutzer”; BARTOK: Rhapsody No. 1; Violin Sonata No. 2; DEBUSSY: Violin Sonata in G Minor – Joseph Szigeti, violin/ Bela Bartok, piano – Pristine Audio PACM 084, 69:43 [] *****:

Among the many fabulous treasures recorded at the Library of Congress, the joint recital (13 April 1940) by Hungarian musicians Joseph Szigeti (1892-1973) and Bela Bartok (1881-1945) stands out for the sheer potent magnetism and electrical vitality of their combined energies. When the Vanguard label brought out the two-LP set of this magnificent concert (SRV-304/5), the playing proved nothing less than revelatory, especially given the “authenticity” of Bartok’s playing two of his own spectacular pieces, of which the Rhapsody No. 1 he had composed specifically for Szigeti. Now, with the aid of Pristine’s XR process and Andrew Rose’s expert ministrations as restoration engineer, the consistently explosive pyrotechnics of the Kreutzer Sonata assault us in their full glory, a whirlwind rendition if ever one existed. It becomes moot which movement we choose to demonstrate the raw power combined with intellectual rigor the performance conveys, but likely auditors will gravitate to the wonderful Andante con variazioni as an example of controlled propulsion and fluctuating rhythms held in abeyance by a common motivic thread. At the last chords of the blistering Finale (Presto), the audience bursts into unbridled applause.

The 1928 Rhapsody No. 1, conceived in the Lydian mode (on G), exploits the kinds of gypsy influences which Szigeti always relished, with dotted rhythms and a strong parlando vocal element. The Friss section virtually sounds like Copland’s “Simple Gifts” melody from Appalachian Spring transposed to a modally acerbic idiom. The music accelerates at an astounding pace, then breaks into a series of detached, percussive, and harmonic effects that further increase the gypsy abandon of this bravura piece whose last pages quite sweep us away with redolent Transylvanian colors.

Bartok worshipped Debussy, preferring to study with Debussy in Paris at a time when Saint-Saens and more conservative composers were the rage. So, the performance of the 1916 G Minor Sonata comes to us as a prayerful homage—exalted, mystical, and rhythmically elastic. Debussy conceived the two instruments as opposed forces, one instrument’s often tugging at the other. Humorous sweetness and passionate fire mark the work, and Szigeti brings his chaste tone and quick vibrato to the fore, adding a degree of coy sensuality to the second movement, Fantasque et leger. If the first movement brought sad nostalgia, the last (composed first, by the way) bestows finesse and panache, even in spite of having employed motifs from the opening movement. Szigeti must execute a vast range of sound, from a low G to a high C-sharp, all in the course of a kind of wayward troubadour’s song, with touches of Spanish rhythm and strummed colors. Bartok, meanwhile, supplies tremolo effects and deft chordal work that only enhances the agony of Debussy’s last completed instrumental composition.

Conceived in 1922, Bartok’s intricately demanding Second Sonata means to challenge each of the performers; and it utilizes the twelve notes of the chromatic scale in a manner reminiscent of the serialists of the Second Viennese School, but it remains in a “highly compromised” C Major. While a plethora gypsy techniques and roma glissandi and portamento dominate, the music eschews anything like a countrified or romantic ethos, asking for no vibrato at times of the violin, while the piano spaces chords of dense and disturbing character. Often, Szigeti and Bartok sound less as if they were playing this music, so much as slowly chopping through its tangles with musical machetes. Attacca, the Allegretto movement opens with aggression, the violin pizzicato and the piano percussively ostinato. A wild jerky dance ensues, maybe touched by Stravinsky or by some drunken, eerie Magyar impulse that spontaneously bursts into wild strident declamations. Yet, somehow, the music and its committed performers compel us to listen, awestruck and a bit mesmerized by this display of alternately sophisticated and savage power.

—Gary Lemco

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