Tuesday 28 August 2012

James Ehnes plays Bartók's Violin Sonatas

Violin Sonatas 1 & 2
Rhapsodies 1 & 2

James Ehnes (violin)
Andrew Armstrong (piano)

Chandos CHAN10705

Bela Bartók was nothing if not a collaborator. Many of his compositions were written for specific musicians with whom he forged strong associations – Jelly D'Arányi; Zoltán Székely; Joseph Szigeti; Yehudi Menuhin: and that's just the violinists – and in each case those collaborators brought big musical personalities to the table. The violin works have stood as some of the most demanding and spartan in the repertoire; still an enormous challenge to the technique and charisma of violinist and their keyboard partner. Canadian violinist James Ehnes brings an iron clad technique to his assault on the Violin Sonatas and Rhapsodies, which follows on from his widely acclaimed recording of Bartók's two Concertos for violin and one for viola for Chandos. But is he the most compelling of guides to this thorny music?

Many of Bartók's darkest works contain a clear thread of existential dread. There's a tone of hopelessness to them, most clearly heard in his thoroughly unpleasant stage works, the opera Bluebeard's Castle and the ballet The Miraculous Mandarin. In those pieces, there's a narrative to make concrete what the music screams at us. The same tone is there in the gloomiest chamber works, ready to be found by musicians able to lift the notes from the page. Take the Second Violin Sonata of 1922. Written for D'Arányi, its violin line hangs in the first movement like a lament carried on a lazy wind, regarded rather than comforted by the piano. Ehnes spins his part with great care; his delivery is nuanced and fragile, but he can be tortured and anguished when required. His faultless technique, though, never sounds stretched by Bartók's enormous demands, and intonation and tone seem precisely weighed at every turn. He's also well matched to his pianist, Andrew Armstrong, a musician of similar command over the cascades of notes.

The same is true in the more impressionistic First Violin Sonata (1921), also written for D'Arányi. It's not a work of quite such determined grimness, but there's still little light. The Adagio is particularly striking: a high, yearning violin line met by granite chords from the piano. Armstrong weighs them perfectly; Ehnes contrasts with a tone of quiet depression. But neither Sonata ever grips completely: in conquering Bartók's strenuous demands quite so completely, Ehnes misses the spontaneity and danger of a performance at the edge. He's certainly never close to playing ugly. Listen to Bartók and Szigeti at the Library of Congress in 1940 in the Second Sonata (Vanguard Classics ATMCD1583) and you'll hear an intensity of storytelling that transcends the initial knottiness of the music.  Their performance is riveting, with a (perhaps unsurprising) feeling of authenticity and directness that’s never been bettered.

The two Rhapsodies, composed in 1928, stem from Bartók’s interest in folk music and are generally easier listening than the Sonatas.  Included at the tail end of the disc is an intriguing bonus: an adapted conclusion to the second part of the first Rhapsody, to be appended when the movement is played by itself.  Space on this extremely well filled disc doesn’t allow for a complete repeat of the Rhapsody’s conclusion with the alternate ending, but the hi-fi savvy can programme their players to jump to the desired track.  Ehnes’s calculated precision is less of a problem in the Rhapsodies, though they do miss the last degree of folky swagger.  In total contrast to the mature Bartók is a brief Andante, written in 1902 in a tiny notebook, totally free of intimations of the music to come.

Chandos’s recording is excellent and Paul Griffiths notes thorough.  “Volume one” suggests a second to follow: hopefully, Armstrong and Ehnes will produce something less cleanly efficient and more open to the grim danger of these works.

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