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Béla BARTÓK (1881-1945)
Sonata for Solo Violin, Sz 117 (1944) [26:33]
Sonata No. 2 for Violin and Piano, Sz 76 (1922) [21:26]
Contrasts for Violin, Clarinet and Piano, Sz 111 (1938) [17:31]
Annar Follesř (violin); Björn Nyman (clarinet); Christian Ihle Hadland (piano)
rec. 2003-2004, Sofienberg Church, Oslo, Norway. DDD
2L28 [65:53] 


This disc, a representative sample of Bartók’s art as a chamber music composer, contains three diverse works that demonstrate well the richness of his output. The earliest work here, the Second Violin and Piano Sonata is from Bartók’s expressionist period of the 1920s, when The Miraculous Mandarin and First Piano Concerto, as well as the First Violin and Piano Sonata, were composed. It has the wild and woolly character of those compositions and also the folk rhythms that became such an important part of his writing. It is in two continuously played movements, the first marked molto moderato is both dramatic and lyrical. The following dance allegretto has plenty of power, but ends quietly. The piece gives both violinist and pianist a real workout, and these performers capture its essence. If Anne-Sophie Mutter and Lambert Orkis (DG) find more colour in the piece, Follesř and Hadland are by no means monochrome. Theirs is the more powerful performance. I haven’t heard the recent highly regarded account by Christian Tetzlaff and Leif Ove Andsnes on Virgin. 

Contrasts for Violin, Clarinet, and Piano belongs to the last period in Bartók’s career, but before he emigrated to the United States, and is one of his most attractive works. The piece was composed in response to a joint commission from violinist Joseph Szigeti and clarinetist Benny Goodman. Originally the work consisted of just the two dance movements, the opening Verbunkos (Recruiting Dance) followed by the Sebes (Fast Dance) and was entitled “Rhapsody,” following the traditional layout of a Hungarian rhapsody. Bartók added the slow movement, Pihenö (Relaxation), to be inserted between the dances, in 1940 and performed the three-movement piece with Szigeti and Goodman in Carnegie Hall in April of that year. When they recorded it for Columbia Records, it was renamed Contrasts. This represents the more accessible side of Bartók and is typical of his later music. It has a strong folk element in the two dance movements, while the slow movement contains the more peaceful, open atmosphere of his night music with its sounds of nature. In the last movement, the violinist begins with an almost direct quotation from the beginning of Saint-Saëns’ Danse macabre and plays a deliberately mistuned violin, after which he has to switch to a normal instrument. This movement is more varied than the other two; it has elements of jazz, a lyricism recalling the earlier night music, and much humour. The work has received a number of outstanding performances, from the dedicatees, whose recording is still available. The artists here turn in a terrific account and the recording judiciously balances the three instruments. They bring out well the character of each movement without slighting the humor, but also without overdoing it as some have done in the past. Their tempi seem ideal. 

The 1944 Sonata for Solo Violin opens the disc and is the longest work on the programme. It was one of Bartók’s final compositions and the last one he actually finished. He completed his Third Piano Concerto of 1945, save for the orchestration of the final bars, and left his Viola Concerto in sketch form. The Sonata was commissioned by Yehudi Menuhin, who gave the first performance in November 1944. The informative notes accompanying this disc state that Menuhin “was unhappy with the quarter-tone and third-tone passages” in the Sonata’s finale. Bartók allowed him to make alterations in the score with the proviso that the composer hear both versions before making a final decision. Unfortunately, Bartók died before this could happen, and the published score did not contain the original notation. Nonetheless, the Sonata remains among Bartók’s supreme achievements. Its four substantial movements run the gamut from Bach to Hungarian folklore, containing contrapuntal and melodic writing in equal measure. As Bach had done two centuries earlier, Bartók here created a magnificent edifice for the solo violin and one that severely tests the violinist’s virtuosity. It gives me pleasure to say that Annar Follesř gives a thrilling performance, one that compares well with Christian Tetzlaff’s first account for Virgin. Follesř, whom I had not heard before, won a prize at the Salzburg Festival’s International Summer Academy for his performance of this Sonata. Based on this recording, he deserved it. 

I listened to this SACD through two channels but even so the recorded sound is superb. The recording has great presence and a very natural balance among the instruments. I can only add that I am looking forward to hearing more from these artists.

Leslie Wright



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