BARTOK: Violin Concerto No. 1, Sz 36, Op. posth.; Violin Concerto No. 2, Sz 112 – Isabelle Faust, violin/ Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra/ Daniel Harding – Harmonia mundi HMC 902146, 57:59 ****:
German violin virtuoso Isabelle Faust (b. 1972) approaches her recording of the two Bartok concertos (rec. April 2012) with the conscientious devotion of the scholar-acolyte. The early 1907 Violin Concerto No. 1, dedicated as it is to Hungarian violinist Stefi Geyer (1888-1956), receives particular attention, with its Tristan-like leitmotif of its opening four notes, part of the “ideal” whom Bartok sought to immortalize in music, since in life Geyer rejected his advances. With the complement of the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra string section, the violin melody of the first movement arches and soars into a liebesnacht of passionate bliss. With the addition of the harp sonority at the coda, the passage to Elysium has run its full course. It might behoove us to consider an excerpt from a letter Bartok wrote to the devoutly Catholic Geyer in his wooing days on the subject of breaking with tradition: “As regards tradition, it’s but holy gospel for average people. And the Stefi Geyers are born to eschew its yoke… I think that everyone, man and woman, if it is in one’s power, must fight against the bonds of tradition. This fight is actually but a striving for autonomy, to be independent of everyone or of everything, as well as to be in control of ourselves…”
The second movement, Allegro giocoso, may well represent the carefree, impish side of Stefi’s nature, or it may mock the very romantic conceits to which Bartok had become enslaved. Already tantalized by folk traditions, Bartok incorporates the German song Der Esel ist ein dummes Tier into the movement, quite likely a poke at the witless character of infatuation, here sans vibrato. The element of parody, of grotesquerie and burlesque, would remain a Bartok motif throughout his creative life. The twitters from the woodwinds well recall the critics’ catcalls from the Richard Strauss Ein Heldenleben. Still, amidst the flurry of bravura effects and convulsive gestures of the second movement, the “ideal” theme manages a nostalgic dignity that Faust maintains with patrician elegance. It might be germane to recall Dorian Gray’s pained search for his old beauty of self, somewhere buried amidst the horrific ravages of his face in the fatal portrait and pleading for recognition in the eyes alone. The final pages have Faust and conductor Harding in virtuoso colloquy, Hungarian style, that ends with the melody’s being momentarily cast against the passing harp, followed by a braying tutti that ends on a note of cynicism. Note Bartok’s final judgment in his own words: “You are a taciturn, a bad, a cruel, a miserly girl! to begrudge me your powers of enchantment!”
Isabelle credits her affection for the music of Bartok to her own teacher, Denes Zsigmondy, who knew Bartok. Faust mentions with equal respect the legendary recording made by Zoltan Szekely and Willem Mengelberg. Faust plays the Second Violin Concerto with studied attention to dynamic and agogic detail, her special Stradivarius in gorgeously modulated tone colors. We hear in the first movement the influence of the verbunkos folk ethos, which occasionally sojourns into the grotesque. The application of Schoenberg’s dodecaphony into a modal and tonal context makes even a fixed system capable of song, rather likening Bartok in his personal style to Alban Berg. Violin and snare drum have their dialogue, with Faust’s shimmering and then warbling (with the harp or a woodwind) against an often hostile tutti. Faust’s rendition of the mighty first movement cadenza has a razor’s edge to it, a thrilling tension. Bartok’s use of progressive variation as a means of procedure becomes quite apparent in this performance, perhaps a testament to conductor Harding’s shared sympathy for this massive work.
The innately attractive, subdued Andante tranquillo movement Faust plays with insouciant simplicity, befitting its semplice character. As the six variants unfold, each assumes a different character, often integrating the violin against the percussion – especially the kettle drum, snare, or triangle – in sympathy with the composer’s studied use of battery effects in his 1937 Sonata for 2 Pianos and Percussion. Faust displays an array of bravura violin techniques, often bouncing the bow, multiple stopping, or trilling pianissimo in the high registers. What a lovely intimacy Faust and Harding achieve in this extraordinary music!
That the last movement cleverly inverts and distorts the exact musical materials of the first movement into a ¾ witches’ dance has become common parlance. What makes this performance unique is that Faust and Harding opt for the composer’s original ending: premier soloist Szekely had objected to the orchestra’s concluding the work, the soloist silent. So Bartok composed a new and brilliant, if rather “traditional,” finale that would showcase the solo part. Faust allows Harding and orchestra – a “Roman triumph,” as it were – to conclude, in which the orchestra trombones perform bravura glissando runs which may be Bartok’s homage to the Schoenberg of Pelleas and Melisande. Whether such “authenticity” will spoil the effect for inveterate Bartok enthusiasts will become matters of time and taste. The performance, however, bristles with commitment, vim, and intelligent vigor on every level. And sound reproduction by Tobias Lehmann at Teldex Studio Berlin proves ecstatically resonant.