5 of 7 people found the following review helpful
Spring on Pluto,
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This review is from: Bartók: Sonata for Solo Violin, Sz 117; 44 Duos for Two Violins (Audio CD)
Addendum, 24/11/12 : I must now point any listener with a serious interest in the Sonata for Solo Violin towards Isabelle Faust's astonishing Bartok Violin Sonatas, a performance with which, despite its heroic effort, that on this disc cannot remotely compare. I have consequently docked a star from my original rating of this disc.
I had a concentrated Bartok (1881-1945) period a few months back in which I purchased a number of his works, and read a biography or two. Gaining familiarity with a broad selection of his music, it becomes clear that there can be few composers who span such a broad spectrum of difficulty to the listener. From the fairy tale innocence and directness of the Wooden Prince, to the desiccated, but incredibly savoury sinews of the later quartets, it can be hard to accept at times that all these works could issue from a single mind. But of all the discs I purchased at that time it was this, with its Sonata for Solo Violin from 1944, that proved the most obstinate to my comprehension. So much so that it has sat gathering dust on my hi-fi for many months, being reluctant to put it on the shelf, as I knew that if I did I would probably never play it again. Last night, before bed, I gave it another chance. Its third movement is chillingly beautiful, in the way that spring on Pluto might be beautiful. Its finale is exciting and full of interesting effects, even if it does seem to wind up too briefly. And though Bartok insisted all his music was tonal, the second movement has only fragments of clear musical sense struggling to emerge from a texture that is as uncompromising as any from atonality. But the first movement is hard as iron. Marked as a chaconne, indicating the inspiration from Bach's masterly solo violin suites, some phrases even start with what might become Bach-like motifs, but they all rapidly become bent, blurred and blunted into convolutions that, to my ears anyway, largely sound terribly wrong and broken. The phrases don't even have the harsh, leaping energy that gives a lot of atonal melody its character. It is rather just the sound of high tensile springs becoming inextricably knotted, or of hysterical creatures eating themselves. The violin writing is clearly as challenging as anything in Bach's originals, with much multiple stopping and counterpoint, but the harmonic principles that govern its unfolding are concentrated into too tight a space to be decoded by the ear with any ease. Is this Bartok pouring out the bitterness of his life in sickness and exile, or just the utterance of a mind that has moved into realms of aesthetic abstraction far removed beyond my ken? Only more actively imaginative listening will possibly be able to tell.
This is one of those discs that if it were sequenced differently, the impression on the listener would be entirely different. If this disc had started with the beautiful 44 Duos for Two Violins of 1931 my review could well have retained its fifth star. These are exquisite little miniatures, averaging about a minute in duration, all based on the fruits of Bartok's famous folk collecting endeavours. It very much does for two violins what his For Children collection does for the piano. Arranged in four books of increasing difficulty, each piece takes a simple folk song or dance and then applies a harmonic underpinning that transforms it into something of astonishing beauty. Harmony is everything with these pieces. The Balkan melodies are trivial, if piquant, and there are no large scale formal considerations to speak of, but it is the strange and beautiful harmonic treatment of each piece that makes each one a tiny, perfect gem. Ironically, it is probably the same highly individual harmonic language that makes these so beautiful. that makes the Solo Violin Sonata so obstinately impenetrable, simply applied slowly enough for an ordinary human brain like mine to follow. One has to wonder if the consistently lugubrious quality of the pieces is a general manifestation of Balkan rural life, or more specific to the composer's outlook, as he manages to make even New Year and Wedding songs and dances sound like quite tragic affairs. These surface emotions however do nothing to detract from the deeply mysterious beauty of their harmonic invention.
I would definitely not recommend this disc to newcomers to Bartok. A Bartok fan, or even just those who respond to Balkan folk, should buy it without hesitation for the very lovely Duos, but should expect to have to work very hard to crack the Solo Sonata.