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8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Perhaps a key to the enigma that is Béla Bartók?, 27 Oct 2009
John Ferngrove (Hants UK) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Bartók: Violin Sonatas 1 & 2, Contrasts (Audio CD)
Addendum, 24/11/12 : While I stand by what I have written below with regard these works and this performance I have since acquired Isabelle Faust's stunning performances of the two violin sonatas, Bartok Violin Sonatas. I have consequently taken the liberty of docking one star from my initial rating.

I first came to Bartók through his formidable string quartets, Bartók: The String Quartets (2 CDs). This was in the early days of my more earnest explorations of the classical realm and, admittedly, I was in search of a challenge, and I alighted on these on the basis of their fearsome reputation. It took me a few years of listening to them to stop searching them for hidden meanings and hear them for what they really are. That being bleak assessments of the human condition, filled with passion, anger and moral outrage, a restless intellectual questing, and only the most austere and provisional forms of beauty. Somewhat later I took on board the big public orchestral works as mediated by Solti on Bartok: The Orchestral Masterpieces. Who could have thought they were written by the same man? Filled with humour, excitement and mirth, a delight in mischief and the macabre, and a fair deal of much simpler, unqualified beauty. More recently I approached his magnificent opera, Bartók: Duke Bluebeard's Castle. Of all his works heard so far this is the one that struck home most immediately, but being, superficially at least, a more conventionally Romantic work it only further tangled the question for me of just who was Béla Bartók? Being stimulated afresh by the opera I took down my long uncomprehended version of his Violin Concerto No.2 from its high shelf. Suddenly, after many years in which it had remained opaque to me, my brain at last hit upon the requisite algorithms for riding this strange twisting, tumbling stream of notes, and this wonderful work opened up for me like a flower. Thus I have embarked upon a period of intensive investigation of Bartók's music, and there will be several more Bartók purchases in the months to come. The first such purchase has been this Naxos disc with its absolutely superlative performances, and which been a revelation. This not least because, at last, here we have music, that could be written by the same man as each of the other of his works with which I have become acquainted. It forms a bridge of understanding, so to speak, between what had until then been disparate islands of his oeuvre.

The first violin sonata of 1922 is hugely rich with details for both instruments, and a constant dramatic interplay between them. The first and most extensive movement has the quality of succumbing to laudanum, with intermittent anxious spikes as though someone is trying to shake you out of a delicious dream. The second movement, which opens with a long meditation for the solo violin is akin to waking up in a strange house, with no memory of how you arrived there. The final movement is a boisterous Magyar peasant dance, but punctuated with abrupt rhythmic interjections that wrong-foot the listener, and add a rising sense of dramatic frustration that builds towards the manic climax.

The second violin sonata, written immediately after the first, in 1923, and in entirely similar musical language, is somewhat briefer, with only two movements. The first movement builds from soft beginnings, with gradually intensifying interplay between the two instruments. This evolves slowly but irrevocably towards a rather intense situation in which slow but relentlessly hammered chords on the piano alternate with sounds of panicked flight, almost like music from a horror film, illustrating again Bartók's attachment to the macabre. This erupts without a break into the second movement, which is once more based on highly agitated folk dance material, but is, if anything, even more stilted by rhythmic cross-currents than the concluding movement of the first sonata.

The third work on this disc, Contrasts, is a relatively short piece at under twenty minutes, and was written in 1938 for the trio of piano, violin and the clarinet of Benny Goodman. Goodman was one of the catalytic figures of 20th music through whom different streams of musical tradition were allowed to cross-pollinate one another. He presented black jazz to white audiences, firstly by presenting black written music through strictly white bands, but eventually, at great personal risk, by being the first high profile white band leader to include great black players on his bandstand. Through him also jazz and popular white dance hall music collided to give birth to the massive phenomenon that was swing, whose influence endures to this day. As a supremely gifted master of his instrument he was also on the prowl for the validation that he perceived would be bestowed by acceptance by the classical world, and this work is only one of his commissions from the classical composers of his day. Again, it is the interplay between the instruments that really strikes home here. It is a somewhat less serious piece than the violin sonatas, though still not lacking any of their depth. In fact I suspect that the score leaves scope for some definite humorous incidents that Goodman would have been more alert to than the present players have chosen to acknowledge. Though that is an observation and no way a criticism of this fine performance.

One listens to Bartók's musical language and hears a multitude of influences. Obviously first and foremost the great tradition of Romantic classical music. Then there are the more or less obvious folk elements, drawn not just from Central Europe but from as far afield as Anatolia and Africa. The notes to this disc discuss an inferred influence from Debussy and his music inspired by the Indonesian gamelan. When one strips out all these influences however one is left with an irreducible core of originality that was the musical essence of Bartók himself, an essence that is arguably one of the most pungent and unique of any composer of the 20th Century.

A final radical point, if I may. While absorbing these works and the sumptuous beauties of the Violin Concerto No.2 I found myself listening in parallel to the albums of the great modern jazz-fusion guitarist, Allan Holdsworth. For those that don't know him, that would be most I suspect, Holdsworth has a style of improvisation that is absolutely unique, that is now influencing a second generation of younger players, but of whom none would claim to have managed to emulate the master. I have found that listening to the Bartók works and Holdsworth together there are some definite similarities between their musical language, even though their respective media of expression are a world or two apart. Both use extreme forms of melodic chromaticism to entirely individualistic effect. Both are inclined to use complex shifting patterns of compound rhythms. Both are drawn to ambiguous harmonic voicings that nonetheless fail to jettison tonality altogether. I can only wonder as to how infinitesimal is the possibility that I might exhort the lover of one to sample the music of the other, and decide for themselves what parallels, if any, are there to be heard?
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Bartók: Violin Sonatas 1 & 2, Contrasts
Bartók: Violin Sonatas 1 & 2, Contrasts by Béla Bartók (Audio CD - 1993)
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