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Béla BARTÓK (1881-1945)
Violin Concerto No. 1 BB48a (1907) [21:26]
Violin Concerto No. 2 BB117 (1938) [35:22]
Thomas Zehetmair (violin)
Budapest Festival Orchestra/Iván Fischer
rec. July 1995, Italian Institute, Budapest, Hungary. DDD

There was a time when there was a dearth of digital recordings of the Bartók Violin Concerto, the one designated as No. 2, that is. It seemed like every other day a new recording of the Berg Concerto appeared, but never the Bartók. Now, if anything, the tables have been turned. In the past two years alone, we have seen new recordings of the Concerto No. 2 by Barnabás Kelemen, James Ehnes and Patricia Kopatchinskaja, all of which have been praised to the skies. I myself gave an enthusiastic welcome to the last of these on this website. Kelemen and Ehnes also recorded the Concerto No. 1, Ehnes’ on the same disc as his No. 2. I have not heard either of these recordings, but I have heard a good many earlier ones.

The disc under review is a reissue, originally on Berlin Classics, at budget price of a highly regarded account along with the much slighter Violin Concerto No. 1. When I reviewed the Kopatchinskaja disc, I was blown away by her exciting performance and warned the listener that hers might not be the first version to have, that something a little less volatile might be preferable. Chung/Rattle was the alternative I mentioned, but had I heard Zehetmair/Fischer I would have placed it even above the Chung. There is something very natural about their collaboration, with Fischer and the Budapest orchestra accompanying idiomatically. For one thing their tempos are closer to what the composer prescribed and the balance between violin and orchestra seems ideal, with detail in the orchestral part coming through better than in other performances I know. Zehetmair’s violin playing is more dramatic than Chung’s and he interprets the quarter-tone passage in the first movement as well as I have ever heard it done. This, in short, could easily become my reference recording for this particular work. I still prefer the original, brassy ending to the third movement without the solo violin and wish that it could have been included here on a separate track. There would have been plenty of room on the disc. It was not included in the original release either. Such an extra track appears on the Kelemen disc and much earlier on Pinchas Zukerman’s recording of the concerto with the Saint Louis Symphony. For those who are happy with the original version of the concerto there are fine accounts by Viktoria Mullova and Christian Tetzlaff.
The so-called Violin Concerto No. 1 that Bartók composed for violinist Stefi Geyer, with whom he was in love, was never finished. The two surviving movements were published only after the composer’s death, and the work was not performed until after Geyer’s death in 1958. Bartók adapted the first movement for his Two Portraits for violin and orchestra, a superior work with its much shorter second part. The second movement of the Concerto is longer than the first and rambles a bit. As a whole, the Concerto shows the influence of Liszt and Richard Strauss in its late-Romantic idiom, something that is typical of Bartók in this early period of his career. Zehetmair and Fischer bring out the warmth and lyricism in the work and play it as well as others I have heard.
Speaking of the competition, a new recording of the two concertos with Isabelle Faust and the Swedish Radio Symphony under Daniel Harding has just appeared and the early reviews have been very favorable. Furthermore, Faust and Harding perform the Second Concerto with its original, orchestral ending. This may very well be another strong competitor in the Bartók violin concerto sweepstakes.
In the meantime, Zehetmair/Fischer remains highly desirable, especially at its new budget price. Brilliant Classics do not stint on the notes either, with Steffen Schmidt’s detailed discussion of the works in (Mark Knoll’s English translation) providing an excellent background to the concertos.
Leslie Wright