Though he was a pianist by training, Bela Bartók produced a number of important chamber works featuring the violin. This recording by Christian Tetzlaff and Leif Ove Andsnes features three of the most formidable, the two mature sonatas for violin and piano (an early work composed in 1903 is not counted in the standard canon) and the sonata for violin alone. The works for violin and piano date from the early 1920s, when the composer was producing some of his knottiest, most experimental work. They are highly contrasted in mood and form, the Sonata No. 1 being a full-scale cycle of three extended movements, the first passionate and rhapsodic, the second slow and lyrical, and the third an energetic finale in the composer's characteristic "barbaric" mode. The Sonata No. 2 is more compact and restrained, its one continuous movement falling into two distinct sections roughly corresponding to the traditional slow-fast dance pairing used by Liszt and by Bartók himself. Both Sonatas use the most advanced harmonic language Bartók allowed himself; although the composer insisted they were tonal and even assigned them key centers, their acerbic dissonances and fragmentary, widely ranging motivic content make them difficult listening even today. The later Sonata for Solo Violin (1944) is no less challenging for both performer and listener, though its four movements are recognizably more "classical" in character and form.
Tetzlaff's and Andsnes' performances of these works are remarkable by any standard--impeccably accurate and rhythmically secure no matter how formidable the technical difficulties, they also convey with confidence the extreme contrasts of mood and emotion inherent in the music. Bartók's deep expressiveness, often difficult to discern behind the intellect, is thus made clear. It is difficult to imagine this music being served any better than by these two artists. With recorded sound of high quality, this CD must rank as a top choice for these cornerstones of the twentieth-century chamber music repertory.