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Twisted Irony and Sarcasm,
This review is from: Bela Bartok: Violin Concertos Nos. 1 & 2 - Isabelle Faust (Audio CD)
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.