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Béla BARTÓK (1881-1945)
Works for Violin and Piano - Volume 2
Sonata for solo violin (1944) [25:43]
Sonata for Violin and Piano (1903) [30:05]
Hungarian Folksongs (1931) [9:14]
Hungarian Folk Tunes (1927) [7:41]
Romanian Folk Dances (1926) [5:23]
James Ehnes (violin), Andrew Armstrong (piano)
rec. Potton Hall, Suffolk, 2-4 June 2012
CHANDOS CHAN10752 [78:08]

James Ehnes is one of the leading violinists of our time, and he and the pianist Andrew Armstrong follow their first volume of Bartók with a second. The repertoire ranges across both extremes of the composer’s career, from the early duo sonata of 1903 to the late solo Sonata of 1944 written for Yehudi Menuhin. In between come various folk-inspired compositions. 

The early Sonata in E minor is a substantial composition, more than thirty minutes in duration. The excellent accompanying notes by the leading Bartók scholar Paul Griffiths outline the background and nature of the music, providing a very useful guide for the listener coming to the work for the first time. He rightly points out that the composer’s style was not fully developed at this time, but his technique was confident. Perhaps the finale is the strongest movement, its structure enhancing the virtuoso line for both players, and moving through to an emphatic and stirring conclusion which is emphasised by the splendidly realistic Chandos recording.
However, it is the Sonata for solo violin that is the major work here. Alongside the more celebrated Third Piano Concerto and Concerto for Orchestra, this was among the fruits of Bartók’s last years. Inevitably the example of Bach was an inspiration that lay behind this music. Facing the challenge of composing a substantial piece using just one instrumental line, Bartók produced a masterwork of extraordinary technical and expressive qualities. In the first movement for example, the title Tempo di ciaccona refers to the pace of the music rather than to its structure; in fact there is a sonata design of the traditional 'exposition-development-recapitulation-coda' variety. These divisions are marked by the appearances of the broad multiple-stopped motif - multiple stings played simultaneously - which is heard at the outset. This theme, therefore, sets the tone for the whole experience. It is a great challenge to the performer and James Ehnes confirms his stature with a commanding presentation, a description that serves for the whole performance too.
The remaining items are all duo arrangements or, more truthfully, rewritings of music originally conceived as solos for Bartók’s own instrument, the piano. Both the Hungarian Folksongs (arranged by Tividar Országh) and the Hungarian Folk Tunes (arranged by Joseph Szigeti) originated in the enormous collection of piano pieces entitled For Children. Better known are the attractive Romanian Folk Dances (here in a version arranged by Zoltán Székely). All this music proves extremely adaptable and Ehnes and Armstrong perform it with the utmost assurance. It is at the opposite remove from the intensity of style that is found in the Sonata for solo violin, but it is equally typical of the composer’s art.
Terry Barfoot