Béla BARTÓK (1881-1945)
Violin Concerto No.1 (1907-08) [20:45]
Violin Concerto No.2 (1938) [36:01]
Viola Concerto (1945) [20:40]
James Ehnes (violin/viola)
BBC Philharmonic/Gianandrea Noseda
rec. Studio 7, New Broadcasting House, Manchester, 8 November 2009 (Concerto No.2), 1 November 2010 (Concerto No.1), 27 February 2011 (Viola Concerto).
CHANDOS CHAN 10690 [77:45]

Canadian violinist James Ehnes writes in the booklet for this release about how special making these recordings has been to him. The expressive warmth and synergy between soloist, orchestra and conductor is startlingly apparent from the beginning. Ehnes also admits to their being ‘tremendously difficult’, which is something relevant to the orchestra as well as the soloist, as evidenced by the ‘on the edge’ horns 7:07 into the first movement of the first concerto – in fact the only very minor smudge I spotted on this set of marvellously presented performances.

You may think these recordings have been ‘cut’ very low to start with, but the huge width of the dynamic range in the recording demands caution with the volume control. The orchestral sonorities open out beautifully in that opening Adagio sostenuto, and the punchy rhythms of the following Allegro giocoso shock you out of the reverie in an instant. This is playing of the first order. I’m not ashamed to say there were always moments in all of these concertos which brought a tear to my eye, and I remember experiencing similar emotions just reading the manuscript pages visible under glass when I dropped by the Bartók museum in Budapest many years ago. This recording has me discovering all kinds of new places where the emotions churn and my diminutive sense of scale as a creative person is once more rammed into perspective.

The Violin Concerto No. 2 is a central work in all senses of the word, and Ehnes plays with authority and strength as well as poetic and lyrical sensitivity. His violin on this recording is a 1715 Stradivarius, the “Marsick”, which on its own doesn’t mean much, but the purity of the high tones in the sound is remarkably fine. The balance between soloist and orchestra is also good: somewhat idealised in favour of Ehnes if imagining a concert-hall experience but not stretching credibility too much and mostly very well in proportion. The Andante tranquillo of the second movement always makes me melt on the spot, and I admire Ehnes’s restraint here, giving the notes a confidingly conversational quality rather than imposing extra layers of lyricism. The subdued drama in this movement is a different world in this recording, and the word ‘moving’ hardly does it justice. The way this movement ends is some of the most wonderful music you will ever hear.

Commissioned by legendary Scottish violist William Primrose, the Viola Concerto remained incomplete when Bartók died in 1945. The edition used here is that by Tibor Serly, the first to make a complete version and, as a musician closest to the composer, considered the most authoritative. The more earthy tones of the viola tell most in the lower registers as you would imagine, but in the upper range the 1793 Guadagnini instrument is closer to a violin sound than you might expect. Touches in the music are a reminder of another of Bartók’s last works, the superb Concerto for Orchestra, but with searching explorations of the enigmatic theme in the first movement this is a more introspective experience. This is a more ‘tricky’ piece than the violin concerti, but the orchestra has tremendous fun with its little filigree corners, and the momentary changes of mood are taken with utter commitment.

There are a few alternatives about for this set of concertos, and I have a good deal of affection for Yehudi Menuhin’s earthily honest recordings with Antal Dorati, now available on EMI Gemini with the two Rhapsodies and a few other duos and the solo Sonata. Menuhin’s vibrato does sound a bit dated now, and his intonation in the very upper reaches is a bit vague at times when compared with Ehnes, but the Hungarian feel of the orchestral rhythms is compelling. I also have a good deal of time for Midori and Zubin Mehta on Sony Classical, and Josef Suk’s recording of the first concerto with the Berg concerto is another old favourite.

With well written and informative booklet notes by Paul Griffiths this release is the total package when it comes to Bartók’s violin and viola concerti. The BBC Philharmonic plays its heart out for Gianandrea Noseda, as they did for the excellent piano concertos CD (see review). All further comment aside, this is one of my discs of the year.

Dominy Clements

Tremendous achievement.

Tremendous achievement.