Béla BARTÓK (1881-1945)
Violin Concerto No.1 BB 48a (1907-08) [20:45]
Violin Concerto No.2 BB 117 (1937-38) [36:01]
Viola Concerto Sz120, BB 128 (1945) edited and completed by Tibor Serly [20:40]
James Ehnes (violin; viola)
BBC Philharmonic/Gianandrea Noseda
rec. Studio 7 New Broadcasting House, Manchester, England 8 November (Violin Concerto No.2); 1 November 2010 (Violin Concerto No.1); 27 February 2011 (Viola Concerto)
CHANDOS CHAN 10690 [77:45]

James Ehnes is one of a select group of violinists whose recordings I would seek out regardless of the repertoire they contain. His name is synonymous with music making of the very highest calibre allied to a technique seemingly untroubled by any degree of complexity. I am pleased to report that this CD is a continuation of such superb recordings. By bringing together the three Bartók string concerti on a single disc Chandos have stolen quite a march on its competitors regardless of quality. Since this contains performances of simply sensational quality it is an easy task to put this right to the top of the list of preferred discs of Bartok string concerti.

Curiously Bartók is a composer whose work seems to spark more negative passions in some collectors than many others. A quick look at some of the classical music forums on the web and you will understand what I mean. This dyspeptic dislike leaves me scratching my head – to my ear he is a fascinating fusion of modernism, form and folk-influence. All of which is instantly apparent in the Violin Concerto No.1 of 1907-8 written while he was enamoured by the nineteen year old fiddler Steffi Geyer. Apparently they soon parted company and Geyer kept the score which remained unpublished and unperformed (in its original form) until after her death in 1956. The modernism is apparent for all to hear – remarkable to think this is as early a work as it is yet cunningly woven into its two-movement structure (an early example of the composer’s fascination for this bi-partite form) are reminiscences of folksongs they collected together in Hungary’s countryside. Ehnes plays this breathtakingly well be-it the opening pages of yearning lyricism or the second movement’s venomous bite. Add superlative Chandos engineering to the usual brilliance of the BBC PO (track 2 around 7:00 demonstrates both these attributes amply) and you will appreciate just what a special disc this is. I have to say I have not been a huge admirer of all of Noseda’s discs for this label but here he seems totally within the idiom and in inspired form too – there is a bi-polar quirkiness about the rapid mood changes in this work that require both conductor and players to respond with razor-sharp emotional and technical precision if it is not to sound simply bitty – I have not heard those transitions more convincingly achieved than here.

It is fascinating to juxtapose the two concerti – separated by more than thirty years. This first was a product of the composer’s twenties but by the time Bartók got to hear the second (in 1943 – he could not attend the 1939 premiere) he had just two more years to live. On one level it is less modern for its time yet the absorption of the folk-idiom is now complete and so brilliantly handled that the composer can also include a second subject that includes a 12-tone theme acknowledging the influence of Schoenberg and the Second Viennese School. Some find Bartók’s strict adherence to chosen forms a limitation but as here where he manages to fuse variation form and his favoured symmetrical arch I for one have nothing but admiration for such confident handling of complex structures.

Talking of confident handling; one of Ehnes’ especial talents is a miraculous sweetness of tone when playing quietly at extreme altitude – the material that develops from this ‘serial’ second subject is a perfect example of this. Not that passages of machine-gun rapidity hold any devils for him either [track 3 6:30 for example] – far from it the articulacy here allied to muscularity is simply remarkable. He has a remarkable ability to be able to focus on the lyrical and melodic elements of even the most complex passages – rightly the technical demands serve the music and do not dominate it. In music such as this it produces a result where the piece comes across as strikingly more ‘romantic’ than might otherwise appear – try the very opening of the central movement [track 4] if you are not sure what I mean – this is played with yearning beauty by both soloist and orchestra. There are echoes of other night scenes so prevalent in Bartók but this is a dreamland of greater humanity than he evokes elsewhere. Again Ehnes is nothing short of exceptional in the filigree passage work he dispatches with nonchalant ease – absolutely perfect in design and execution. The finale of the work is equally impressive – I have heard this played with a greater degree of earthy folkiness – possibly, just possibly this is the one moment when Ehnes’ brilliance works a fraction against the spirit of the music but even as I write this I feel guilty for criticising someone for being too good!

Although by its inclusion this becomes a disc of superb value in playing time terms as well as anything else there is a small degree of controversy in the presence of the Viola Concerto. As a piece it is only performable by using an edition/completion by the composer’s friend and colleague Tibor Serly. Additionally, I do have some sympathy for members of the viola-playing union who get frustrated by a violinist muscling their way into the already limited repertoire of the viola concerto. You never get a violist swapping to a violin and recording standard repertoire but the transition the other way is a far more regular occurrence albeit with varying degrees of success. The viola is a very different beast to play requiring a different bow technique in particular. Of course no surprise to read that Ehnes plays the viola supremely well. His instrument here, a 1793 Guadagnini as opposed to his 1715 Stradivarius violin, sounds quite ravishing. Compared to say Rivka Golani on the defunct Conifer label Ehnes is the superior technician but Golani digs deeper producing a guttural tone. I have not heard Lawrence Power’s compilation of Hungarian concerti on BIS but I imagine it would be very fine. It is down to the individual listener and their expectations and hopes for the ‘sound’ of this instrument. As to the piece itself I do have lingering doubts as to how sure we can be that what we are hearing are the composer’s final thoughts – as presented the second violin concerto is surely a finer work. Sensational playing and engineering once again though from the BBC orchestra and the Chandos production team. Ehnes is at his finest in the rhapsodic central movement – the sweetness of his lyrical playing of poignant beauty (I am not sure I have ever heard a viola sound so like a violin) is little short of astounding. The gypsy finale is lighter hearted than any of the music elsewhere on the disc and as such it provides an exciting and uplifting close to the programme – Ehnes’ apparent technical ease is one final joyful marvel to hear.

I have to be honest and say that this is not recorded repertoire I know from multiple versions – the only other copy in my collection is by André Gertler with Karel Ancerl on Supraphon. They are very fine and as full of character as you might expect but they are surpassed on just about every level by this new disc. I see from the catalogue there are versions by famous violinists from Menuhin to Chung and Shaham (the latter in No.2). I am sure they all have their virtues but none bring together the three works on a single disc as here and I doubt they can better it on a purely technical level from either players or engineers. Ehnes adds a personal note to the liner expressing his delight and pride in this CD – I can only echo that sentiment; a surefire winner.

Nick Barnard