on 9 August 2013
Isabelle Faust can claim a direct line to Béla Bartók himself; as an eleven year old studying the Sonata for solo violin, her teacher was the Hungarian violinist Dénes Zsigmondy, who had known the composer personally. It was natural (she notes in the booklet) that she should choose the Bartók: Violin Sonatas as her debut disc. Now, again for Harmonia Mundi, she has taken on the two concertos.
Faust prepared carefully for these recordings with much research, the findings of which are detailed in her five page essay which accompanies the disc. She has clearly made some significant discoveries; for instance, on consulting the first performance solo part of the first concerto she found some annotations in the composer's own hand, which don't seem to have come to light before. In one of these reference is made quite specifically to the first few notes of the second movement, which Bartók wrote are to be played 'without vibrato'.
The first concerto is less often recorded than the second, but Faust makes as convincing case as possible for it to be brought back into the mainstream repertoire, both in her writing and in her playing. The work is a love-letter to the violinist Stefi Geyer, and the first notes were sketched during their holiday together in the summer of 1907. Geyer declined to perform it however, breaking off their relationship soon after it was finished. Bartók noted in a letter that for him, composition involved the whole self, exhibiting 'more exactly than a biography...the driving passions of a life'. All emotions were admitted, '...grief, rage, vengeance, twisted irony, sarcasm.' Faust here captures both the beauty which the composer idealised, but also the flip-side; the capriciousness and the cool indifference. More lyrical than the second concerto, and written before Bartók had fully absorbed the spikiness and occasional grotesquery of the various folk elements which were later to so engage him, this is a work of brief, svelte enchantment.
Faust has much competition in terms of the second concerto, with particularly strong recordings from Patricia Kopatchinskaja Bartok: Concerto No. 2, Eotvos: Seven, Ligeti; Violin Concerto, Kyung-Wha Chung Bartók: Violin Concertos Nos 1 & 2 and Isaac Stern - Tchaikovsky: Violin Concerto, Bartok: Violin Concerto No.2, amongst many others. In a concerto in which it is tempting to fly to the alternate extremes of either pianissimo or outright frenzy, Faust finds a sort of repose from which she can expose the many colours in this at times contorted and convoluted work. The 'Sleeping Beauty' Stradivarius of 1704 is capable in her hands of producing breathtakingly beautiful legato passages which seem to defy any sense of bow strokes being made at all. On the other hand, when the music spins into a vortex at the climax of the last movement, the full power and majesty of the instrument is unleashed. It's fittingly echoed by the brass in the rarely heard original ending, with a sound which Faust herself describes as like 'the roaring of elephants'. Daniel Harding and the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra take the centre-stage here, in a glorious culmination to a wonderful performance all round.
Picked this up after hearing a sample track on the BBC Music magazine website. I don't really know Bartok's work at all (Bluebeard's Castle is about as much as I've heard).
So this was a bit of a blind gamble. At first I wasn't sure it had paid off. The first concerto is attractive enough but on first listening seemed very slight. The second concerto is more "modern" (i.e. seems less easy on the ear).
But I did what I always do in situations like this: I kept the disc in the player and repeated it several times over the next week, as well as ripping it to my iPhone for a train journey.
I'm glad I did. The first concerto is now ravishing, full of emotion (and when you read the sleeve notes you'll get a sense of the unrequited love behind the first movement). The second demands more attention. I love the opening few bars and the violin's entry. After that it starts to get more complex and it's like staring at one of those magic eye pictures waiting for the picture to come through. When it does - if it does - you'll be very pleased with yourself.
The performance is fantastic - I look forward to more from this violinist. Faust's notes are scholarly and it's clear she likes to do her homework. A wonderful disc - do what I did and make a leap of faith and if it doesn't touch you on first listening, give it time. It burns at you.
This disc, extremely well played and recorded in 2012 effortlessly confirms the status of these two works, and especially the second concerto, as among the elite of the twentieth century violin concertos. Isabelle Faust's first disc was of Bartok and this makes a triumphant return to that beginning landmark.
The first concerto was not published or performed until after Bartok's death, having been composed with the love of his life in mind. This love did not come to fruition and the recipient and dedicatee, Stefi Geyer, did not play the work at all. Isabelle Faust has researched the manuscripts and other relevant documentation as regards this concerto, copious notes explain this in the booklet, and she found that there were numerous clues as to performance that simply were omitted from the published edition. These key descriptions are very specific about the emotional content of the piece and include instructions such as 'utterly desperate,' 'always volatile,' 'always tranquil,' 'unforced,' 'exhausted,' etc. Played with complete adherence to these very specific ideas, what we now hear is a far more subtle work which is considerably enhanced in stature.
The second concerto, of course, is incomparably the greater work and incorporates everything that Bartok knew about composition towards the end part of his life. In particular, Bartok, had researched and incorporated a great deal of Hungarian folk music, or the idioms of Hungarian folk music, into his own compositions. This second violin concerto differs markedly from the first in that respect especially. In addition he was able to incorporate such disparate elements such as that folk music influence with more modern compositional ideas such as the 12 note tone row so that the whole structure becomes a unified experience as briefly described below.
The first movement thus starts with a folk dance idea, a verkunkos, but for the second theme he uses a 12 tone row but within a tonal context. This tone row is more flexible than that envisioned by Schoenberg in so far as the exact sequence of the pitching of the notes within the row is varied for melodic reasons and the initial note is repeated, in effect creating a 13 note tone row. None of this should be of concern to the listener as this should be a musical experience rather than an academic exercise. The second movement takes the form of a series of a theme with six variations with fully explore the possibilities of the violin. The final movement takes the form of a variation of the first movement.
Once more, Isabelle Faust has researched the intentions of the work in considerable detail. As a result the work has, on this recording, become more unified and makes complete sense as a whole musical experience. The accompanying booklet gives plenty of detail in these respects and makes for interesting reading.
This recording is notably effective in blending these elements in such a way as the whole piece flows logically and apparently simply. This is a considerable achievement with such a complex work. The interpretation is far less driven than that of the Chung/Solti recording where one suspects Solti of having a considerable influence on the interpretation. Chung's later recording with Rattle is an altogether gentler response with less drive and more lyrical awareness of the folk elements. Andre Gertler, a close performing colleague of Bartok for many years, offers probably the closest recording to Bartok's intentions but Isabelle Faust on this disc runs him pretty close and has a much more modern recording to her advantage. Arabella Steinbacher provides an interpretation of great accuracy and empathy which falls roughly in the middle of these alternatives.
On balance I would suggest that Isabella Faust's disc has claim to be one of the best recordings of these two works yet produced since Gertler's highly authentic accounts. Collectors would probably want at least both of these discs but those interested in just one recording could well be totally satisfied with Faust's fine new recordings on this disc.
I would therefore suggest that this disc has rather special claims to be considered for purchase by anyone looking for a suitable recording.
on 10 September 2013
Last year Isabelle Faust gave us the outstanding disc of the year featuring one of the greatest violin concertos of the 20th century. After that triumphant account of the Berg (coupled with the Beethoven), she has returned with a new recording of Bartók's two violin concertos, joined by the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra and Daniel Harding. Even it doesn't quite eclipse last year's offering, this is still a seriously impassioned disc, showing Faust in stonking form.
Bartók's First Violin Concerto has naturally be eclipsed by its kinetic successor, though judging by the post-Romantic intensity of Faust and Harding's performance, number one deserves a seriously considered reappraisal. Like Abbado's reading of the Berg, Harding is totally unabashed about delivering the emotional force of a work which is littered with markings such as 'always volatile', 'utterly desolate' and 'with great feeling'. Faust's sweet voice is rendered even more heavenly by the fervency of the Swedes' playing.
The ensuing Allegro giocoso begins as a barbed retort, but likewise soon wears its heart on its sleeve. Faust brings wonderful heal-of-the-bow bite to more virtuoso passages, spurring the orchestra into life, with thrilling exchanges between the violin and upward spiralling woodwind. Occasionally the bloomy production, made in the Berdwaldhallen in Stockholm, fudges details, but Faust, the orchestra and Harding still manage to bring this unjustly overlooked work into heartfelt and energetic life.
Infinitely more familiar is the 1938 Concerto, written for Zoltán Székely. Like Berg's near contemporaneous work, it has many great advocates, though again Faust is undaunted by the performance history. Hers is a lush reading, with swooning phrases and an accompaniment as plush as the work's predecessor. Yet Faust and Harding are sure to maintain a firm grip, with terrific thrust and pace, revealing yet further parallels with the First Violin Concerto.
The Mahlerian Andante is delivered without fuss, though it blooms sufficiently when Faust is joined by the burnished Swedish strings. Again the sound doesn't always allow smaller facets to tell precisely - for a clearer but no less engaging performance choose Shaham, Chicago and Boulez - though it suits the heady performance on offer. That is until the caustic humour of the Finale kicks in, delivered with a deliciously violent swing. Answering Faust's call, Harding caps this thrilling recording with a mad shock of orchestral colour.
How many brilliant young women violinists can there be currently? I can't keep pace, at least not without neglecting other kinds of music. I had thought myself reasonably au courant with my 1977 Decca LP recording of `the` Bartok violin concerto (now of course known to everyone as the second such) played by Kung-wha Chung with Solti and the LPO. This is still available on cd, now in partnership with the first violin concerto. I can still recommend it, today in 2014, but here is a serious rival from a soloist new to me and a conductor who is not new to me, mainly through luck as I heard him and was mightily impressed in Berlin about ten years ago. That was not from planning but because I was at a loose end one evening. They make a fine partnership, they are a safe choice for any collector, but they are not any kind of runaway winners in this particular field because of the competition they face.
Isabelle Faust supplies her own liner essay, a heartfelt and thoughtful introduction to two works that obviously engage her deeply. In 1977 the first violin concerto seemed something of a historical and scholarly find rather than anything a music-lover might want to hear for pleasure. The sleeve-note to my LP is distinctly offhand and dismissive in the few words it deigns to allow it, and I guess that is why until now I have not bothered to make its acquaintance. May I suggest that younger music-followers don't make the same mistake, because it is a lovely and affecting work. The first movement is a more or less continuous lyric, reflecting the love that the composer experienced for a young woman violinist (they were around then too, it seems). His feelings were not requited, and the long second and final movement may be taken as representing some sort of reaction. This is the only performance of it that I own or am ever likely to own. The focus of my own interest is on the great second concerto, and I'd hazard a guess that the same goes for most followers of Bartok from a musical rather than an academic angle.
How Kung-wha Chung and Solti handle the first concerto I therefore don't know, but if it is anything other than excellent something strange must have happened. Where they interest me is as a benchmark for comparing the superb new version of the second that I am reviewing here. Faust, Harding and the Swedish orchestra excel in every department, and the recorded sound is such as you would expect and demand for April 2012. I noticed immediately that they were more relaxed over the harp chords at the start, but, to my slight surprise, they took rather less time over the first movement overall. By way of consistency, they were brisker by a similarly small margin in the other two movements. There was little to choose in these other two movements, unless you think the issue of the alternative endings more important than I think it. The style, quality and general approach differ only in fine details that would overload a short review and prove nothing. In terms of the recorded sound 2012 unsurprisingly has a slight advantage over 1976, but if you are looking to buy only one version I suggest that this difference is not enough to sway a choice.
For me, the clincher is in the sense of continuity and linear strength that I want in the first movement, and here my vote definitely goes to Kung-wha Chung and Solti. What a choice to be offered! They are both superb. I would also add that Isabelle Faust's sensitive and illuminating comments are a world apart from the kind of thing that we are often served up by way of liner notes, and I think they reward careful reading. Like others, she comments on the way that the third and last movement reworks the thematic material of the first. I wonder why she does not mention the Elgar concerto in this respect: half the last movement of that (the so-called `cadenza') is a far more obvious reverie on the themes of its first movement, and I wonder whether it was Bartok's much-proclaimed liking for variations that guided him in this direction or whether he took some notice of old Elgar. More particularly, this performance gives us something I can't recall having heard before - the original ending that Bartok wrote before his soloist rhubarbed at it for leaving the solo instrument out. In fact that was nothing unusual. Offhand, I can think of both the `Emperor' concerto and the Brahms D minor, where the same thing happens without apparently upsetting anyone. However there is no way of getting both versions on to one cd simultaneously, so the only way to have both is to own both versions. If you think that the criterion of choice between them that I have offered is unsatisfactory and inconclusive, I think so too. I own both versions, and rather than make a single choice that is what I suggest you do as well.
on 2 June 2014
First impression was that the soloist had been placed in a more realistic balance than is usual. However, in practice I found it hard to find a level where the soloist was sufficiently present without the orchestra bringing down the roof in the louder passages. The Zehetmair recording sounds dim until you raise the level somewhat higher than usual then emerges with good balance and presence of both orchestra and soloist (like many LSO label recordings). So not a huge advantage in the newer recording. Fischer is a superb accompanist on the older recording and gives a greater sense of inevitability, though Harding doesn't miss many tricks and I love the alternative ending to no.2 where the orchestra sneezes in a way that reminded me of Kodaly. Faust is clearly a wonderful violinist and I am not for one instant going to suggest that this recent release is not outstanding. However, I am not yet clear that I prefer it to the much cheaper reissue on Brilliant classics of the Zehetmair performance of the same works. I need to listen to them again but I suspect I shall keep both of them
on 8 August 2013
Out of silence, a hungry serpent writhes sensuously, unbiddable, rapt. It is the sound of an introductory solo by a great composer for the violin, brought alive here by a great player of the instrument. Isabelle Faust, after years away, has returned to Bartók, his first violin concerto is in hand, and turbulent congress of soloist and orchestra righteously ensues.
In 1907-8, the 26-year-old Hungarian wrote the concerto for, and about, the teenage violinist Stefi Geyer, whom he adored. Here she seems to be - variously skittish, petulant, laughing, answering back, and more. The second movement offers a clear and delightful evocation of the speedy slithers from love-making to languor and from quarrelling to making-up. (About the time that the concerto was completed and ready to be sent to Geyer, she broke off the relationship with Bartók, by letter.)
The orchestral writing in the first movement might have been less referential to the work of other composers, but the violin music is ever-engaging, full of amazements. In the second movement, the orchestra in this recording, just now and then, needed to impart more colour, even a touch more urgency, to bolster the composition.
There is no lack of urgency in the interpretation of the second concerto, where the conductor shows himself longer on rampage than on restraint. Well, 30 years had passed since Bartók wrote the first concerto, during which central Europe had become a madhouse of the politics of the snarl, and cultural life in Hungary was often in spiteful upheaval. Even so, for the taste of some listeners, the funfair-cum-nightmare may be too rapid in this version. (The first movement's score is marked allegro non troppo.) This recording of the second concerto clips a minute or two off the time of other versions by other forces. Yet that well suits Faust's interpretation, that of a lean dancer and acrobat, whirling but always in command of herself.
With Faust, there is much to command - her diligent research in preparation, her astounding skill, her very distinctive Stradivarius. Those elements have led some to label her lacking in warmth, too attached to the mathematical structures when with Bach, for instance, than to the curvature that beguiles the listener's emotions. I think not - and here, at Bartók, especially in the first movement of concerto No. 2, Faust is as tippy-toed and filigree as can be, when harsh, jolting work by the band is interrupted by lyrical passages for the soloist. Then away she goes at sudden, exciting tangents - always precisely integrated and balanced with the orchestra in a recording that does much credit to the sound engineers.
As Faust points out, via her informative and graceful remarks in the CD's booklet, this recording omits the ending of concerto No. 2 required of Bartók by the premiere's soloist in 1939. Preferred here is the composer's original conclusion, rarely played, that's "reminiscent of the roaring of elephants," Faust writes. I'll say - and well done, you Stockholm trombonists.
When she places that Strad at her chin, Faust's research and technique are poured into a smelter that she heats just right. In this case, the metal poured forth is a splendid account of two works of ideas, drive, stimulation, intensity - two strides forward in 20th-century human achievement and two pokes in the ear of the philistines of snarl and goose-step.
What now for Isabelle Faust? A few weeks ago, her agent in Germany was telling your reviewer that she "has no plans" to record the violin concerto by Ligeti, another Hungarian master who had to seek exile. Oh, Frau Faust, do you remember playing it ten years ago in London? Please take the score into the studio, nod to the conductor and raise your bow. A marvel would result.
on 7 October 2013
Isabelle Faust is magnificent in both concerti. Her intonation is perfect, her fingering in even the most acrobatic passages is absolutely spellbinding. The orchestra and conductor are most impressive, too. I'm just not sure that she really gets to the heart of the later work.
Pretty damned good, though - and the actual recording is crystal-clear with wide dynamic range (so mind you don't blast the neighbours away at times).
on 27 October 2014
A superb recording/performance of superb music.
on 14 April 2016
An excellent recording but Bartok