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BARTOK: Violin Concerto No. 2; PETER EÖTVÖS: Seven; GYÖRGY LIGETI: Violin Concerto – Patricia Kopatchinskaja, violin/Frankfurt Radio Sym. Orch. /Ensemble Modern/Peter Eötvös – Naïve (2 CDs)

BELA BARTOK: Violin Concerto No. 2; PETER EÖTVÖS: Seven; GYÖRGY LIGETI: Violin Concerto – Patricia Kopatchinskaja, violin/Frankfurt Radio Sym. Orch./Ensemble Modern/Peter Eötvös – Naïve Records V5285, 89:43 (2 CDs) [Distr. by Naxos] (10/30/2012) ****:

At first glance, this looks like a truly bizarre set of three violin concertos that, seemingly, have little in common. The booklet notes point out the strangely relevant fact that all three composers and these works have a connection to the Transylvania region of Romania where a small but essential Hungarian gypsy musical culture grew. This collection does grab you with its raw emotion and the very rapturous and somewhat exotic sounds that the region typifies.

Bartok spent a lot of time in Transylvania gathering the rhythms and modalities that became this concerto, his trio Contrasts, his opera Duke Bluebeard’s Castle and many others. I have always loved Bartok’s music, this Violin Concerto being one of my favorites. What enthralled about this performance is that of the soloist, Patricia Kopatchinskaja, a native of Moldova. I had never heard her before but I am quite impressed with her playing in all these works. Her first movement in the Bartok, Allegro non troppo, has a drive and a bite to it that is more than in most performances I have heard but I loved it. Similarly, her Andante tranquillo is sultry and rapturous.

I have heard some of native Transylvanian Peter Eötvös’s music before and have enjoyed it for its colorful orchestrations and its own exotic feel. Eötvös is an excellent orchestrator and this violin concerto, Seven, is a wonderful and emotional work dedicated to the memory of the seven astronauts who died in the 2003 Columbia space shuttle disaster. (As a completely irrelevant comment, I share Eötvös’s fascination with space exploration and respect for the brave astronauts who have accomplished these feats. The tragedy of the Columbia is sometimes not as prevalent in people’s minds in light of the much earlier Challenger disaster and Christa McAuliffe, first teacher in space) Seven exists in two large parts; the first of which is really four cadenzas for solo violin and orchestra. Further, the orchestra in Part II is divided into seven sections representing the seven deceased astronauts and six tutti violins are dispersed throughout the performance space. The effect, musically, more than lives up to the implicit structural symbology. This is a dramatic work, pensive and mournful in spots, bold and declamatory in others and even unsettling at times. Here again Kopatchinskaja plays with verve and carries the mood and feeling of the work very convincingly.

György Ligeti was also a native of the region and well entrenched in the mysterious but evocative nature of the music from his culture. What is truly fascinating for those who are familiar with his music is to see and hear how it has developed and evolved over the years. Some of Ligeti’s early works for orchestra and chorus are intense and built on blocks of sound that evoke other worldly scenes and images. Works like his Atmospheres or his Requiem are constructed in a way that Ligeti referred to as “micropolyphony.” The Violin Concerto is hardly “traditional” in its approach but actually owes more to Bartok than to his own earlier work. The five-movement version of this work, performed here is considered the definitive version that the composer left in 1992. The Concerto channels bits of early music as well as the folk sounds of Bulgaria or Hungary in between dramatic bursts of orchestral intrusion. Some utterly bizarre, slightly disconcerting effects include the use of ocarinas in the winds, some unusual quarter-tunings in the strings and the employ of natural horns instead of the modern French horn. This is a spare work, using only twenty-three players and sounds eerie and bleak throughout and yet, especially the solo violin part, still evokes the playing found in rural Hungary and thereabouts. Kopatchinskaja and Ensemble Modern do this strange but compelling work great justice and it will leave you satisfied but just a little unsettled.

Gramophone Magazine already declared this two disc set one of its Recording of the Year winners for 2013. I can see why. This is not a typical grouping to be sure. It is, however, a fascinating look at three very disparate works which a culture in common played exceptionally well and leaving a lasting impression.

—Daniel Coombs

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