Béla BARTÓK (1881-1945)
Works for Violin and Piano - Volume 1
Rhapsody No. 1, BB 94a [10:25]
Sonata No. 2, BB 85 [20:07]
Rhapsody No. 2, BB 96a [10:33]
Sonata No. 1, BB 84 [33:35]
Andante, BB 26b [4:00]
Alternative ending for Rhapsody No. 1 [1:48]
James Ehnes (violin)
Andrew Armstrong (piano)
rec. Potton Hall, Dunwich, Suffolk; 30 May - 1 June 2011
CHANDOS CHAN 10705 [80:30]
I’ve spent a lot of energy recently praising to the skies James Ehnes’ work as a concerto soloist, both live in Edinburgh and on disc with Tchaikovsky. He is a musician of the most outstanding calibre, and this CD of his work in Bartók will only raise his reputation higher.
The title of the disc suggests that Ehnes and Armstrong are embarking on a project, though no further details are given in the liner-notes. If so then it’s one worth keeping an ear on, as the results on display on this disc are extraordinary, a worthy successor to his disc of Bartók concertos, also on Chandos. Bartók’s violin sonatas are among his most interesting but challenging works, and it’s a master-stroke to couple them with some of his most accessible writing for violin and piano. The disc begins with the first Rhapsody which, with its fiercely rhythmic opening, is immediately stamped with the flavour of Hungarian folk dance. In fact, the composer even refers to this in his sub-heading for the work: Folk Dances. The first movement has an earthy quality to its main melodies but a lovely songful feel to the great central section. The second movement is more showy, perhaps even more indebted to the composer’s love of Hungarian folk tunes. It’s full of dazzling inflections tossed off by Ehnes as if it were all in a day’s work. For the sake of completeness the disc also supplies an alternative ending which is interesting enough, if a bit superfluous. The Second Rhapsody is more angular than the first with some astonishing double-stopping from the soloist but also some bright-eyed humour too.
Make no mistake, though, the main events here are the two sonatas. It’s a shrewd programming move to put the more approachable Second Sonata first. The playing here is imbued with a lovely sense of questioning, of exploration, especially in the violin line. The piano underpins it with something more adamant, still exploring but more insistently than his partner. There is a lovely sense of the two listening to one another, as it should be in all the best sonata performances. The second movement is more reckless than the first, runaway and playful in many places, especially in the regular violin glissandi and double-stops, but always maintaining a hint of an edge. I loved the interplay of the pizzicato violin with the grumbling piano just before the lightning quick perpetuo section. The listener is treated to two great artists striking sparks off each other. The ending is particularly sublime, played with beautiful subtlety as the violin heads gently into the stratosphere.
The angular dissonant landscapes of the First Sonata present more of a challenge to the listener, but Ehnes and Armstrong assail this terrain with breathtaking skill. The spiky, often discordant world of the opening gives way to a slow movement of astounding humanity, the stillness coming across all the more powerfully after the drama of the opening, and the unaccompanied violin line that opens this movement draws the finest playing on the disc. It’s followed by a finale whose energy and attack will knock your socks off. Then, as if to surprise us all, the disc ends with the earliest, and most instantly accessible, work of all, the Andante that the composer wrote for the Arányi sisters who were the great-nieces of Joseph Joachim. Its arching, lyrical melody is beautiful in its simplicity, played here with intense beauty and just the right degree of schmaltz.
This is a magnificent disc, wonderful playing captured in fantastic sound, and a fine way to begin an exploration of Bartók’s work in this genre. Roll on Volume Two.
Simon Thompson
A magnificent disc, wonderful playing captured in fantastic sound. 

see also review by Leslie Wright