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.