BARTOK: Violin Concerto No. 1, Sz. 36; ENESCU: Octet for Strings in C Major, Op. 7 – Vilde Frang, violin/ Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France/ Mikko Franck/ Eik Schumann, Gabriel Le Magadure, Rosanne Philippens, violins/ Lawrence Power, Lily Francis, violas/ Nicolas Altstadt, Jan-Erik Gustafson, cellos – Warner Classics 0190295662554, 58:05 (9/7/18) *****:

Recorded September-October 2017, these two works created by men born the same year -1881- pay homage to another great musician, violinist Yehudi Menuhin (1916-1999) who benefitted from long association and friendship with each of the composers. The “story” of the posthumously published (1956) First Violin Concerto of Bartok has become common currency: in 1907, he fell in love with violinist Stefi Geyer, composing the concerto that would bear “her leitmotif” of five notes in rising thirds. She broke off the relationship in 1908, whereupon Bartok began writing several pieces of a mordant, funereal character, including the second of his Two Portraits, Op. 5, “A Grotesque.” Though the music had been written “from my soul,” as Bartok expressed it, he suppressed any publication of the “second movement.” Even in the course of the second movement’s jerky rhythms and discordant harmony, a tender affect emerges, once more illumined by those descending thirds of Bartok’s “immortal beloved.”

Violinist Vilde Frang seems an ideal exponent to capture in tones Bartok’s expression of “the idealized Stefi, celestial and inward.” A marvelous intimacy of expression suffuses the opening, the texture’s soon assuming the quality of a string quartet, until the full string ensemble finds its voice. Bartok employs a loose variation principle to proceed, and in so doing achieves a unity of affect that Poe would often declare the organic raison d’etre of all strong composition. With slow and steady evolution, the music guides Frang to the high D over glowing strings and harp that marks the end of the movement and the culmination of a romantic vision. Marked Allegro gicocoso, the second movement might insinuate Stefi’s carefree and playful nature, but it no less paints a sometimes callous or dismissive attitude. The themes’four, heavily stressed notes possess a rustic character, but no less “learned” when the contrapuntal aspects of the music evolve, a light fugato in the woodwinds. Late in the movement, the Stefi motto recurs in the form of swirling harps and far-off horns. Frang and conductor Franck create a vivid, pulsating homage to Bartok’s youthful ardor, sincere and passionate.  Bartok had considered a third movement for this work—adopted from one of the Op. 14 Bagatelles—but its sarcastic character rather found its way into the second of the Portraits, Op. 5 of 1911.

Georges Enesco wrought his marvelous Octet in 1900, already having conceived of a four-movement work that would unfold in one continuous motion, like Schubert’s Wanderer Fantasy, Liszt’s B minor Sonata, and contemporaneously, Schoenberg’s string sextet Verklaerte Nacht. Enesco considered himself above all a polyphonic composer, setting the opening melody (“Tres modere”) in octaves on seven upper strings while the second cello holds a tremolo on the C string. Frang and her first viola begin a canon for the relatively serene middle section, largely ground in C Major, until the second cello rises up a semitone into C-sharp that initiates more agitated, or at least, more expressive mood in B minor. The music will settle into B Major, but to do so the low cello must play scordatura, lowing its own bottom string down to B for an askew, eerie sound.

The second movement “Tres fougeux” pulls no punches as a ferocious, knottily fugal scherzo that employs a minor ninth as its dominant interval. The series of blistering octaves and impassioned strigendi make us think easily of the emotional spasms in Schoenberg. The middle section meanders among chromatic keys, infiltrated by thunderous interruptions and silences, some reminiscent of both Beethoven and Tchaikovsky. A heated fugato ensues, at a gallop, to become a wild, dervish dance. The leaping meloidy of the opening appears, but in the low instruments ad upside down.

Frang removes her mute to play the third movement, “Lentement,” which consists of a long melody whose accompaniment evolves in counterpoint, the other players’ using mutes. Enesco employs aspects of the “cyclic” school of Cesar Franck, incorporating his opening subject against the melody of movement one; and then in an increased tempo, the fugato motif absorbs the opening subject. The effect, passionately lush and unearthly, broadens
more than a reminiscence: its late figures in waltz tempo over pizzicatos will form the basis after a dramatic kind of parlando episode—for the last movement, “Mouvement de valse bien rythmee,” a “transfigured” version of the fugato now a dizzy waltz like that which killed John Qualen in The Devil and Daniel Webster.  The whipping movements assumes more intense radiance as it nears C Major, even in spite of the persistent D-flats. Schubert had utilizes such progressive harmony—D-flat to C—in his great C Major String Quintet, and we must assume Enesco to have been singularly impressed with the strategy.  Frang’s energy and intoxication with the whirling figures more than palpable, dominates our aural concentration, and the totality of effect has us wondering why it took so long for us to savor this monumental composition.

—Gary Lemco

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