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Béla BARTÓK (1881-1945)
Violin Concerto No. 2, BB 117, Sz. 112 (1937-38) [36:42]
Rhapsody No. 1 for Violin and Orchestra, BB 94b, Sz 87 (1928-29) [10:44]
Rhapsody No. 2 for Violin and Orchestra, BB 96b, Sz 87, Sz 90 (1928-29; 1935) [10:17]
Baiba Skride (Violin)
WDR Sinfonieorchester Köln/Eivind Aadland
rec. 2017, Philharmonie, Köln, Germany
ORFEO C950191 [57:43]

Latvian violinist Baiba Skride (b. 1981) won the 2001 Queen Elisabeth Competition and has been on the ascent ever since, appearing with major orchestras and conductors and making numerous recordings across a broad range of repertory, from JS Bach and Mozart to Shostakovich and Bernstein. Here, on her latest CD, she has chosen Bartók's most popular concerto in any form and a pair of less well-known works of lighter character, the two folk-inspired Rhapsodies.

The Concerto for Violin and Orchestra No. 2 was composed in the pre-war years of 1937-38, one of the last compositions Bartók wrote before fleeing Hungary for the United States where he would spend his few remaining years. The work needs no introduction, as it is a staple of the repertory and has enjoyed many recordings from major violinists over the years. Here, Baiba Skride takes what can be regarded as a slightly understated approach, pointing up the lyrical, thoughtful side of the work and often leaning more toward a legato style than many other violinists. It's not that Skride blunts the impact of the grittier elements in the score: indeed, she plays with plenty of heft and her attacks can be potent. That said, she rightly understands that late Bartók tilts toward a mellowing of style as one clearly hears in works like the Concerto for Orchestra and Third Piano Concerto.

Her tempos tend to be moderate, though the second movement is a bit on the brisk side. Her phrasing throughout is well imagined and never strikes the ear as eccentric or wayward. The first movement opening theme has a suave, lyrical flow here and the agitated music that follows builds with drive and a sense of urgency toward the orchestral statement of the theme, now slightly varied. The ensuing music, including the dark twelve-note theme (not used in an orthodox Schoenbergian way by Bartók) is most convincing. In this rather sprawling first movement, the uninitiated listener might initially hear the music as episodic and not formally easy to grasp, but Skride effectively integrates the various sections and thematic developments into a unified whole as well as anyone else, thanks to her more probing yet multifaceted manner of phrasing. Her cadenza is very well played as she deftly portrays the drama with a sense of mystery and roiling character, near the end heightening the tension for the faster music that comes when the orchestra joins back in. In many ways, Skride's more measured and thoughtful account of the cadenza is nearly the opposite of Anne-Sophie Mutter's far more dramatic and blunt treatment on her DG CD with Ozawa. Both are very effective performances and show that this work can obviously have more than one or two interpretive vantage points.

Skride's phrasing of the lyrical, second movement main theme is very sensitive and beautiful, thankfully with no hint of sentimentality, an emotion Bartók would have loathed. The six variations that follow are each rendered in proper character, whether mysterious (this is an example of the composer's “night music”), or angry, or playful, or joyfully carefree. The finale, which is based on material from the first movement, is equally successful here. Ms. Skride delivers the main theme with great attention to its dynamics, and she phrases lyrical moments that come later with great sensitivity. Faster music has plenty of energy here and Skride consistently points up much significant detail. Speaking of detail, it is heard aplenty throughout the performance from the spirited WDR Sinfonieorchester under the very capable leadership of Norwegian conductor Eivind Aadland. Overall, this is an excellent Bartók Second.

Although the concerto has folkish qualities, its themes are original. In the rhapsodies, however, Bartók uses genuine folk melodies. And what composer understood the folk music of Eastern Europe better than this inveterate collector of folk tunes? These are both very approachable works, the kind that have immediate appeal to first time listeners. The First Rhapsody gets a little more attention than the Second, though neither approaches the Second Violin Concerto in popularity in either the concert hall or on disc. As for the performances of the Rhapsodies by Ms. Skride and the orchestra, much the same kind of spirit is evident in their playing as in the Concerto. Here, of course, she is keenly aware of the colorful character of the music, its lighter expressive manner, its chipper nature and frolicsome humor. Overall, then, these must be assessed as very fine performances of both works.

The sound reproduction on this disc is very vivid and well balanced, though perhaps favoring the soloist somewhat, which for me is actually preferable in most violin concertos. As for the competition, in the concerto the aforementioned Mutter effort has been a favorite of mine, though there are fine recent accounts by Victoria Mullova with Esa-Pekka Salonen on Philips, Tedi Papavrami with Emmanuel Krivine on Alpha, and Christian Tetzlaff with Hannu Lintu on Ondine, which I reviewed here last year (review). There is an excellent older version of note, the apparently out-of-print David Oistrakh rendition on MK with Gennady Rozhdestvensky, which first introduced me to the work in the early 1960s. To me, however, it now comes down to the dramatic and bold Anne-Sophie Mutter and this new effort by Baiba Skride. It's a tough choice that depends on your view of Bartók and of this concerto—my preference is probably Mutter by a hair. In the Rhapsodies my library isn't as deep, but I have at least one other fine recording, this from 1968-70 on Hungaroton's complete works box set featuring Dénes Kovács with János Ferencsik that might be competitive if not for the sound which, though not bad, is not nearly as good as Orfeo's. Bartók mavens will want to consider purchase of Skride's CD, while violin enthusiasts might also want to take a look at it, especially if they are unacquainted with the work of this highly talented violinist.

Robert Cummings

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