Visceral Bartok violin concerto performances by Christian Tetzlaff find sumptuous support from the Finnish Radio Symphony under Hannu Lintu.
BARTOK: Violin Concerto No. 1; Violin Concerto No. 2 – Christian Tetzlaff, violin/ Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra/ Hannu Lintu – Ondine ODE 1317-2, 60:41 (4/13/18) Distr. by Naxos] ****:
Now that the First Violin Concerto (1907; pub. 1956) of Bela Bartok has become “common currency” among active violinists, its romantic history, too, has the benefit of familiarity. Bartok had been smitten with the talented Hungarian violin prodigy Stefi Geyer, a pupil of Jeno Hubay at the Academy of Music in Budapest. Bartok called his musical “Confession” a form of “direct music” such as he had never penned before. He wrote to Ms. Geyer that the first movement meant to be a “transcendent and intimate portrait” of her, while the second movement should represent the “outgoing and confident” aspects of her personality. An intended third movement, a picture of Geyer’s “cool, indifferent, silent” character—or her response to his courtship—Bartok never completed. Bartok did utilize the slow movement for the first of his Two Portraits, Op. 5 (1911), retaining the opening motif D-F#-A-C# that defines the “Stefi theme.”
Christian Tetzlaff (rec. 18-19 October 2017) intones the opening Andante sostenuto in D Major as a lovely cantilena that enjoys dreamy support from the Finnish Radio Symphony string and woodwinds. The music rises into a brief, ardent climax and then subsides. The English horn lends a distinctive hue to the middle section, ushering in another rapturous moment that nods to the voluminous color palette of Richard Strauss. A final section serves as a quiet postlude, mutely sounding a triangle and harp, while Tetzlaff sails high into C-sharp for Stefi, so to land on D, and an emotional repose. The second section, Allegro giocoso, testifies to Stefi explosive virtuosity, if not to her mercurial nature. Bartok mixes three themes into a free sonata-form, distorting the “Stefi theme” into a muscular, angular, motif whose colors lilt with aspects of Richard Strauss and Magyar doxology. Bartok mocks his subject with a quotation from a German children’s tune, Der Esel ist ein dummes Tier, “the donkey is a stupid beast.” Tetzlaff’s rasping, biting attacks merge perfectly with the acerbic wind filigree, reminiscent of the critics in the Richard Strauss Ein Heldenleben. In the ardent moments, however, we do hear the passion in the composer that his romantic life denied.
The more famous Second Violin Concerto (1938) owes its inspiration to Hungarian violinist Zoltan Szekely (1903-2001), another Hubay pupil and student of Kodaly in composition at the Academy of Music. Bartok had already dedicated his 1928 Second Rhapsody to Szekely, and he accepted a commission for a new Violin Concerto, also to be dedicated to Szekely, with a three years’ exclusivity agreement for Szekely to tour with the work. Bartok fused the Hungarian verbunkos style with diverse folk elements, added to his own, natural penchant for Debussy’s free use of modal harmony. We hear this in Bartok’s tendency to ground his secondary tune in F, rather than in F-sharp, and so he invokes a tritone. The opening riff—the key is B Major—in the harp sets a romantic sensibility at work, evolving in sonata-form, but interrupted by sudden convulsions in the violin par that mix with a highly chromatic color line that employs all 12 notes of the scale, as if Bartok were mocking the Schoenberg school’s assumption that such treatment could only accommodate atonality! Quarter tones (around D) introduce the extended, tricky cadenza, which Tetzlaff carries effortlessly.
Bartok tends to create expressive slow movements; here, an Andante tranquillo and six variations. Holding back in sound effects, Bartok employs only one member of the brass section, and he colors the music with harp and percussion. The fourth variation utilizes “Roma” effects from the Magyar tradition, allowing throughout for Tetzlaff to display his alternately pungent and lyrical gifts to great advantage. The orchestral contribution from conductor Lintu evokes the sultry and beguiling elements of the “night music” style in Bartok. Bartok takes an unusual tack in the last movement, Allegro molto, essentially re-writing his first movement as yet another—albeit grandiose—variation. Tetzlaff—like Szekely, Menuhin, and Szigeti before him—has a grand virtuoso vehicle to work with, rife with canny irony and strident effects. Eventually, the music will swoop quite literally to a high B, the music’s natural tonal center. Tetzlaff’s preferred instrument since 2002, his Stefan-Peter Greiner, achieves a thrilling, piercing ardor in these performances, produced by Reijo Kiilunen and Laura Heikinheimo.