The EMI/Virgin re-issues continue apace, with this latest one
being as recommendable as any I can think of. When it was first
released in 2004, it shot to the top of many critics’ lists of
discs of the year and, given that recordings of the Bartók violin
and piano sonatas are not exactly thick on the ground, should
do well all over again in its new lower-priced format.
of these two supremely intelligent, probing artists did not
necessarily guarantee success, but it turns out they rise to
every challenge with a degree of technical virtuosity and poetic
mastery such that criticism is, indeed, virtually silenced.
Andsnes’ command of the fearsome piano parts is shown at the
opening of the First Sonata, where the balance between the rhapsodic
freedom of the arpeggiated figures and keeping structural tautness
is spot-on. The rootless, exotically coloured piano chords at
4:04 remind us that Bartók was always a great admirer of Debussy.
The playing is never too aggressive – always a danger in Bartók
– as the climactic point at 10:03 shows. Tetzlaff’s tonal sheen
and silvery line are shown at their best in the slow movement,
a long threnody that unwinds and twists with angular uncertainty.
My main rival version, from Gyorgy Pauk and Jeno Jandó on Naxos,
shows a slight grittiness that is in some ways rougher and more
appropriate, but there’s no denying the sheer luxuriance of
tone colour from Tetzlaff and Andsnes. Again, Debussian whole
tones abound, contrasting with the ‘Gypsy’ fiddling at 4:40-ish,
where Tetzlaff lets his hair down. The finale is more typically
Bartókian, furious, driving, percussive, and here there’s actually
not much to choose between the two versions, as both are satisfying.
The more pensive,
wistful opening of the Second Sonata suits Tetzlaff and Andsnes
perfectly and once again shows them revelling in the playful
contrasts that the composer explores. The second of the Sonata’s
two movements is another Bartókian ride on a fast, rhythmic
machine and is a tour-de-force in these players’ hands.
The coupling for
the two sonatas is here virtually ideal, the Sonata for Solo
Violin. Written famously for Menuhin in Bartók’s final, largely
unhappy American period, it is as technically challenging as
anything he produced. A return to Bach prompted a neo-classical
structure and the mood, overall, is very positive and uplifting,
especially in Tetzlaff’s ebullient performance. He recorded
the work in the early 1990s and, though I haven’t heard that
recording, I can’t imagine it being any more persuasive than
this, with its beautifully graded tone and complete command
of the cross-rhythms and harmonics.
The audio quality
is outstanding and there is an excellent liner-note from Philippe
Mougeot. I’ve mentioned the Naxos version, a true gem of their
catalogue (8.550749) and which has Contrasts
as a coupling. It’s a very fine disc, but this coupling
is even better and, given the lower mid-price, makes these aristocratic
renditions of superb pieces very desirable indeed.