BÉLA BARTÓK: Rhapsody No. 1 for Violin and Orchestra; Rhapsody No. 2 for Violin and Orch.; Violin Concerto No. 2 for Violin and Orch. – Barnabás Kelemen, violin/Hungarian Nat. Philharmonic Orch./Zoltán Kocsis – Hungaraton HSACD 32509 multichannel SACD [Distr. by Naxos] (9/11/15) 77:39 ****:
Fresh new readings of important Bartok classics.
Bartok was not just one of the most important twentieth century composers but his is a signature sound. His music always sounds like no other and in many ways he defined Hungarian classical music like no other.
Gypsy blood runs through much of his music and helps to create that sound and is most easily heard in his violin music. Here we have three of his most important violin works performed superbly by a Hungarian soloist and one of the country’s most impressive orchestras.
The two Rhapsodies, in particular, are wonderful works that do not get programmed as often as the two Concertos for violin and orchestra. They are both lush and melodic works that owe something to the Marosszék Dances by Bartók’s friend, composer Zoltán Kodály. What is interesting about both of these pieces is that they are both among his longest and largest scale works to be derived from folk music – which Bartók spent a lifetime collecting and studying. Soloist Barnabás Kelemen gives these Rhapsodies a very involved and authentic reading.
The second Violin Concerto is a harmonically and stylistically more adventurous work that, in places, echoes sections of the composer’s own Concerto for Orchestra, the trio Contrasts and even some early Schoenberg. What I found interesting – and rewarding – about Kelemen’s performance here is his expert but complete utilization of the pitch bends and quarter tone trills in the first movement; sometimes under-played a bit. That plus Kelemen’s beautiful interpretation of the second movement makes this one of the finer renditions I have heard.
Another very nice and important feature to this album is that we get, in the “appendix”, the alternative endings to each of these important works. The most radical is that of the Concerto No. 2 in which Bartók’s original ending uses orchestral verve but without the solo violin. The violinist for whom the work was written, Zoltán Székely, insisted that the finale feature the soloist right to the end. In listening to both versions, I am glad that Bartók made the change.
The two alternate endings to the Rhapsodies are as fascinating. The first Rhapsody has an alternate second ending that is actually faster and more virtuosic than the original and is, therefore, played fairly often. The second Rhapsody is distinguished by its complexity and uses several different indigenous folk songs to round out its two permutations. I found either version of either of these works to be interesting and rewarding; not as immediately easy to ‘decide’ as our choice in the Concerto.
This is a very fine set of performances by a very talented soloist and orchestra under the very informed direction of conductor Zoltán Kocsis. I really recommend this to anyone who already knows these works and wants a very rewarding fresh reading.