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Béla BARTÓK (1881-1945)
Violin Concerto No. 2, Sz. 112 (1938) [38:02]
Violin Concerto No. 1, Sz. 36 (1907-8) [22:21]
Christian Tetzlaff (violin)
Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra/Hannu Lintu
rec. 2017, Helsinki Music Centre
ONDINE ODE1317-2 [60:41]

Bartók published only one violin concerto, the mature work of 1938. It belongs in his third period, when he had moved away from the abrasiveness of his works of the 1920s into a richer and fuller idiom. The work, though very difficult for the soloist, has a long singing line and a great variety of moods. The early concerto of 1907-1908 only came to light after the death in 1956 of Stefi Geyer, the violinist with whom Bartók had been in love and for whom he wrote it. Not surprisingly for an early work, it is somewhat derivative, with the shadow of Richard Strauss falling rather heavily over it. Bartók never published it, and in fact reused its first movement as the first of his Two Portraits, Op. 5. However, since its appearance it has been numbered No. 1, making the mature work No. 2.

Christian Tetzlaff is a violinist I have long admired. He first recorded the Bartók second concerto in 1990. I have not heard that, but when I heard his 2004 recording of the two Bartók violin sonatas on Erato, it immediately became my reference version, so I was very keen to hear this new recording of both concertos.

It does not disappoint. No. 2 is placed first on the disc. I immediately noted the nervous intensity of Tetzlaff’s solo line, the way in which he responds to the rapidly changing moods of the piece and its wide emotional range. There are passages where he refines down his tone to a whisper, and others where the passion and fury of the playing easily dominate the orchestra. When it comes to the first movement cadenza, he makes the quarter-tone murmurings convincing. The second movement is largely dreamy, the finale is boisterous, rather like the first, with which it shares much of its material, but indulging in rather rough high spirits at times.

No. 1 follows on the disc. There are only two movements, slow then fast. The first movement is lyrical and meditative. Bartók had only just discovered the folk music which was to be so important to him, and its inflections do not enter this work. This movement is supposed to be an intimate portrait of Stefi Geyer, and Bartók considered he had not previously written such direct music. The second movement is supposed to represent the more outgoing side of her personality. It is quirky and with a certain biting humour, but is rather episodic. I am not surprised Bartók discarded it. Towards the end there is a quotation of a children’s song, which is connected with a happy day he had spent with Stefi and her brother on 28 June 1907. A planned third movement, portraying her aloof and unresponsive personality, never materialized.

In both concertos, Tetzlaff displays his immaculate technique and a sovereign command of his instrument. He has a complete grasp of the idiom, and I cannot imagine these concertos better played. Hannu Lintu and the Finnish Radio Orchestra show themselves completely unfazed by Bartók’s orchestral writing, and enter into the spirit of the works with gusto – including some rather noisy passages for the brass – but also with subtlety where required.

The recording was made from live performances over two days in a concert hall. The violinist is balanced slightly forward, as is inevitable with a concerto recording, but not too much so that the orchestra cannot fully play its part. The sleeve note in four languages, including Finnish, is helpful.

There are now many recordings of the Bartók concertos, and more of just No. 2 with works by other composers or the two Bartók Rhapsodies. I suppose the other current front runners for the two concertos together are Isabelle Faust with Daniel Harding (review) and Renaud Capuçon with François-Xavier Roth (on Erato). For No. 2 on its own I look back to older recordings, by Itzhak Perlman with André Previn and Kyung-Wha Chung with Simon Rattle. But this version must certainly be a front runner, and it would be hard to beat.

Stephen Barber



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