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CD Review

Béla Bartók


  • Violin Concerto #1
  • Violin Concerto #2
  • Viola Concerto
James Ehnes, violin
BBC Philharmonic Orchestra/Gianandrea Noseda
Chandos CHAN10690 77:45 2011
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There are many fine recordings of Bartók's Second Violin Concerto, this among them, but the chief interest of this recording is the fact of that concerto being sandwiched between one of his first works and his very last.

Bartók's long-unknown Violin Concerto No 1, which he wrote for the nineteen year old violinist Stefi Geyer, whom he loved not wisely but too well, as she rejected him on account of his tactlessly expressed religious and social views. As it happens he was not the only composer who wrote a concerto for her. She, like Bartók, married more than once, had an extensive performing career, and taught at the Zürich Conservatory. The only copy of Bartók's concerto, given to her by its composer, remained unplayed in a drawer during her lifetime, and was performed for the first time in 1958, two years after her death, by in a performance conducted by Paul Sacher. In her three-part biographical account of Geyer's life, easily found on the Internet, Emily Liz writes that "the first movement was to be a portrait of Stefi Geyer as person and woman – the idealized Stefi, celestial and inward," Bartók wrote. Stefi herself later described it as a portrait of "the young girl he loved…." The second movement was to represent Stefi Geyer as the elfish, witty, sparkling virtuoso violinist. "Cheerful, witty, and amusing," Bartók called it. Stefi referred to the movement as a tribute to "the violinist he admired."

The Viola Concerto, commissioned and first played by the violist William Primrose, (whose early recording on Bartók Records, with Tibor Serly conducting the New Symphony Orchestra of London, remains one of my most prized recordings) was left unfinished at the time of Bartók's death. As is well known, Tibor Serly completed the concerto at the request of Bartók's family. Others have tinkered with it and in 2001 the violist Csaba Erdélyi produced what he called a "restoration" and new orchestration, claimed, with credible support from at least one other violist (known to me) who examined Bartók's score, to come closer to Bartók's intentions. Be that as it may, Ehnes performs the Serly version and, as I thoroughly bonded on that many years ago, have no objection.

These performances are excellent, and distinctive enough to have their own identity. Ehnes plays the slow movements, especially the Adagio religioso of the Viola Concerto, exquisitely. I actually prefer the Primrose/Serly version, which is wonderfully mellow, but that is not available, and Primrose playing with Klemperer is available only as an MP3. I also like the violist's Kim Kashkashian's recording with Peter Eötvös. The cellist Yo-yo Ma recorded this, playing not the cello but an instrument called an alto violin, and Yehudi Menuhin played it on violin. (Violists resent this kind of thing.)

A word about the sound on this recording: it is sweet-sounding, even mellow for both viola and orchestra provided it is played at a very moderate volume. I found that played at a higher level it threatens to become disturbingly harsh, not something I have noticed particularly in other recordings.


Copyright © 2012, R. James Tobin