Béla BARTÓK (1881-1945)
Complete works for violin - Vol.2
Sonata for violin Sz117 [29:38]
44 Duos for two violins (Books 1-4) Sz98* [50:10]
Antal Zalai (violin); Valery Oistrakh (violin)*
rec. Westverkerk, Schiedam, The Netherlands, 30 November-1 December 2011
BRILLIANT CLASSICS 9270 [80:08]
The creative urge is so powerful that even when faced with imminent death, when most ordinary people would be arranging their affairs, seeing loved ones for the last time, or having a last fabulous holiday or, at the very least, taking it easy, some artists feel driven to defy death with some final creative utterances, working right up to the end.
There are many examples of this and this disc contains a major one in the shape of Bartók’s Sonata for solo violin Sz117 an estimable four movement work lasting almost half an hour. Written in early 1944 for the then rising star Yehudi Menuhin and premièred when the composer had less than a year to live, it is hugely complex and challenging. Though there are no overt references to the folk music that Bartók had been collecting for so much of his life. That said, there are similarities in the construction of the melodies to Dalmatian and Serbo-Croatian folksongs which he had been editing for several years. This is music that repays repeated listening. Brace yourself for the very first hearing being a relatively difficult one for the ‘uninitiated’. At first it sounds stark and extremely serious in nature but after a while it reveals itself as extremely melodic and very beautiful. Its seeming complexity gives way to gorgeous sonorities that cancel out those first bleak impressions. One sure reason for the work’s success is the close cooperation that there was between the composer and its dedicatee. Menuhin made many suggestions which helped make it more “playable”. After a massive chaconne-style movement recalling Bach, whose solo sonatas and partitas Bartók clearly had in mind, there follows a fugue-like one. Then comes a mellower sounding melodia and a final folksy presto completes the sonata. Malcolm MacDonald in his pithy booklet notes ably describes the individual movements. In the end the more often you hear it the more you will respond to its wonderful musical message that life is not over until the fat lady has sung, taken her bow and the curtain has come down.
The rest of this amply filled disc comprises Bartók’s 44 Duos for two violins Sz98. Here we are firmly back in familiar territory with music that shows his endless fascination with folk roots. The titles given to almost every one show what a wealth of material he had collected. These Duos perform a unique role in ensuring that these melodies did not disappear with the folk musicians whose traditions often die along with them. With this work the composer demonstrates his amazing ability to express so much in such short pieces. Each of them is a brilliant tiny diamond that glitters in a wondrously inventive way. Any listener who has travelled to Hungary, Romania and Central and Eastern Europe in general and admires its rich folk heritage that is so often played out in restaurants from Prague to Istanbul will recognise the sound-world of which these duos form part. Thanks to Bartók’s brilliance you can imagine a folk group of two violins, viola, double bass and cimbalom playing these pieces with the two violins here able to capture those harmonically fascinating sounds. MacDonald again explains the details of the work which he states is surely the cornerstone of the duo violin repertoire. It’s not as if there is an over-supply. It’s worth adding that the Duos were composed at the behest of Erich Dorflein a music teacher who requested a work to demonstrate his new method of teaching the violin. Graded in terms of complexity MacDonald further explains that they were not intended by Bartók to be played as a whole set but suggested that they be arranged in groups of six or so. That said, they are so wonderfully melodic that hearing them all is not at all taxing. It’s as rewarding as hearing only a few at a time. The origins of the melodies include many cultures: Hungarian, Slovak, Romanian, Ruthenian, Serbian, Wallachian, Ukrainian and Arab. They include songs and dances for almost every festive occasion from wedding and harvest songs to children’s games and lullabies. Each and every one shows the composer’s lifelong admiration for the folk music of the people and his determination to preserve its heritage and use it in pursuit of a ‘solution to the harmonic crisis that had plagued 20th century music’ as MacDonald puts it. While I am writing these words I am listening to track 40 which is duo no.36 Szól a duda (bagpipes) and smiling at Bartók’s facility in representing something as unique as bagpipes on two violins in an entirely convincing way. These duos are superb in the enjoyment they give on each listening. I could never tire of hearing them.
The violinists on this disc have the music in their veins. Antal Zalai is Hungarian and Valery Oistrakh is the latest in a line of brilliant violinists from that illustrious family with David his grandfather and Igor his father. Zalai performs the Sonata with the right degree of reverence and skill to produce a wonderful performance and the two give a simply dazzling account of the duos.
Once again Brilliant Classics have done the listening public a great service in allowing an ever wider audience to get to know less often performed repertoire at value for money prices. They are to be congratulated.
These duos are superb in the enjoyment they give.