Béla BARTÓK (1881-1945)
Violin Concerto No 1, BB 48a Sz 36 (1907-8)
Viola Concerto, BB 128 Sz 120 (1945) (ed. Tibor Serly)
Rhapsody No 1 for violin and orchestra, BB 94b Sz 86 (1928-9)
Rhapsody No 2 for violin and orchestra, BB 96b Sz 89 (1928, rev. 1935)
Violin Concerto No 2, BE 117 Sz 112 (1937—8)
Six movements from 44 Duos for two violins, BB 104 Sz98 (1931): Sorrow; New Year’s Greeting; Harvest Song; Bagpipes; Scherzo; Arabian Song
Sonata for solo violin, BR 124 Sz117 (1944)
Yehudi Menuhin (violin)
Nell Gotkovsky (violin: duos)
BBC Symphony Orchestra/Pierre Boulez (rhapsodies)
New Philharmonia Orchestra/Antal Doráti (concertos)
rec. 1965 (Violin Concertos), 1966 (Viola Concerto), Kingsway Hall, London; 1965 (Duos), 1968 (Rhapsodies), 1974/75 (Sonata), Abbey Road Studios, London
WARNER CLASSICS 5854872 [67:28 + 72:46]
This is a reissue by Presto of a compilation first offered by EMI in 2003 and then transferred to Warner. However, as that was some time ago, it is worth reminding readers of the close association Menuhin had with Bartók which lies behind these recordings. They first met in New York in 1943, when Bartók attended a concert in which Menuhin played his first violin sonata, a performance which greatly pleased the composer. Menuhin went on to commission the Sonata for solo violin, Bartók’s last completed work. He also took up the 1938 Violin Concerto – the one we now know as the Second – and played it frequently, thereby helping establish its position as one of the great violin concertos of the twentieth century. His admiration for Bartók’s music and affinity with it make his recordings important documents.
The first disc here begins with the First Violin Concerto. This was one of Bartók’s early works, written for his love of the time, the violinist Stefi Geyer. He gave her the manuscript, but she never played and it surfaced only after her death in 1956 – the premiere was in 1958. Bartók did not include it in his own list of works but he did reuse the first movement as the first of his Two Portraits BB48b Sz 46. He originally planned the concerto in three movements, but he wrote only two of them. The first is dreamy and lyrical. Menuhin plays this with plenty of portamenti, which is surprising but in character for the piece. The second movement is more skittish. In fact, the two movements together amount to a portrait of Stefi Geyer, somewhat analogous to that of Manon Gropius in the first movement of Alban Berg’s much later Violin Concerto.
Next we have the Viola Concerto, Bartók’s last work, which he left in sketches at his death. Tibor Serly put these into performable shape, The work has been seized on by violists as an important addition to their meagre concerto repertoire, but I have to say that I have always found it only an interesting might-have-been. The first movement is disjointed and with passages which seem like weakened repetitions of those in earlier works. The second movement is very sketchy, The finale starts very well with vigorous rhythmic music but both it and the slow movement are far too short to balance the first movement. Menuhin liked playing the viola occasionally, and he makes the best of this work, but he makes his viola sound exactly like a violin, which is presumably not quite what the composer intended.
The two Rhapsodies are both based on Transylvanian folk tunes, elaborately ornamented. Each is divided into two parts, a slow lassú and a faster friss. The orchestral requirements are small, but the first includes a cimbalon, which at the time was a rare instrument outside Hungary, and this militated against its frequent performance. The violin parts are highly virtuosic and Menuhin plays them with evident enjoyment, completely comfortable with the idiom.
The Second Violin Concerto is arguably the finest of all Bartók’s concertos and has become a repertory work. When the commissioner, Zoltán Székely asked for it. Bartók first proposed a work in variation form. Szekely demurred and said he wanted a proper concerto in three movements. Bartók acquiesced, but, after the work had been completed and premiered, Bartók pointed out that he had in fact used variation form, in that not only is the central movement a theme and variations, but the material of the first movement recurs in the finale. The beauty of the themes and of their working out, and the ease of following the work have contributed to its popularity. For Menuhin it was a signature work. He recorded it several times, indeed three times with Doráti, the conductor here, and consequently there is an ease and naturalness about their performance which helps confirm its classic status.
Between this and the Solo Violin Sonata we have six of the forty four Duos for two violins which Bartók composed as teaching pieces. This is a demanding medium, with normally only two notes playable at the same time and no possibility of a proper bass. Bartók drew plentifully on folk tunes for these pieces, and the six which have been chosen here make a nicely contrasted set. In them Menuhin is joined by Nell Gotovsky, herself a fine violinist who recorded the two Bartók concertos.
The solo sonata is in four movements. The first is marked Tempo di ciaconna but is not actually a chaconne but a sonata form movement. The second is a fugue, obviously inspired by those in Bach’s solo sonatas but much freer in form. The third movement, marked Melodia, is lyrical, in ternary form, and the finale, Presto, is a rondo which is the most straightforward movement of the work. This is a very demanding work for the player and apparently challenged Menuhin a good deal. He nevertheless gives a commanding performance.
Menuhin had a particular feeling for the composer and his performances are idiomatic and stylish. Of course, as with all great works, his is not the only way to play them, but his playing did commend itself to the composer and he has a unique authority. In the concertos the orchestra is in the hands of Doráti, always a fine conductor of Bartók and he gets excellent playing from the New Philharmonia Orchestra. For the Rhapsodies instead we have Boulez, also a good Bartókian, with the BBC Symphony Orchestra. I find the orchestral parts of these slightly lacking in gusto, with the cimbalon in the first Rhapsody almost inaudible; perhaps they were a bit short of rehearsal time. The sound is good quality analogue with only a hint of congestion in the most fully scored passages. However, in general this is a classic set, which can be commended to all those who care for the composer or the violinist.
Previous review (original EMI issue): John Leeman