Wednesday, 4 April 2012

Bartók, Works for Violin and Piano, Volume 1

I reviewed James Ehnes' disc of Béla Bartók's (1881-1945) Concerto works for violin a few months ago. Now he's moved on to the works for violin and piano, and is joined by Andrew Armstrong on piano. Volume 1 includes the two Sonatas, two Rhapsodies and an early Andante movement. This pretty much covers the works for the two instruments together, so I suspect Volume 2 will be a mopping up exercise of obscure pieces - but perhaps I'm missing something. 

However, this first volume is a real delight. The two Rhapsodies (BB94a and BB96a) are shorter pieces than the Sonatas, and perhaps more accessible, designed to be show pieces for recital performance. A result, there is generally slightly less for the piano to do, as the main focus is virtuosity on the violin. They are more tonal, and more explicitly draw on Hungarian tunes, rhythms and idioms - yet Bartok also includes Romanian and even Ukranian themes.  The second in particular contains some particularly idiomatic writing, with strumming effects from the violin, and a rustic inspired dance towards the close.  Bartok wrote two endings to the first Rhapsody, one with a virtuosic flourish, which is most often heard, and a slightly less dramatic end which brings back some of the opening music before closing.  Ehnes has recorded both here, favouring the lighter ending.  It is however slightly fiddly to play the alternative ending following the first part, without programming your CD player, or listening on a computer.  Still, nice to have both versions.

Credit: Benjamin Ealovega
The first Sonata for Violin and Piano, BB84, dates from 1921.  Here, the music is much more complex, typically demonstrating how Bartok brought together the tonality of folk song roots with the atonality of the 'new' music of contemporaries such as Schoenberg and Stravinsky.  In fact it is actually the conflict between the two which creates the musical tension here.  If the instruments are in any key at all, then the piano is in C sharp minor, against a kind of C minor in the violin.  The tritone figures large, combined with a minor sixth on top, and this cluster recurs throughout the first movement.  The second movement begins with a long violin solo, quoting Beethoven's Op. 131 quartet, and when the piano comes in, it accompanies with much more tonal, harmonic and sombre chords.  The last movement is compared by Paul Griffiths in the CD notes to the chase in The Miraculous Mandarin, and it is definitely a frenetic dash  to the finishing line.  

The second Sonata for Violin and Piano, BB85, comes from just a year later.  It is shorter, and the overall feel for me is eerie and atmospheric.  In the first movement, the tritone is back again, but rather than being strident and forceful, as in the first Sonata, here it creates a more mysterious effect - reminiscent of its use in Britten's War Requiem (or is that just because it's in my head at the moment?).  Added to this, there is frequent use of glissandi, harmonics and unexpected double stopped chords in the violin.  The second movement starts with pizzicato from the violin, interjected by almost jazz like figurations in the piano part.  There is much more rhythmic interest here, with constant tempi changes, and dance-like passages.  This all feels like it will build to a dramatic finish, but in fact, following a final flourish from the violin, the music winds down, with the violin rising higher and higher.  The piece ends quietly with a massively spread C major triad - just two notes from the piano and the violin on a quiet top E.  

The final addition here is an early Andante (BB26b) from much earlier (1902).  It was written for one of the three Arányi sisters (as were the Sonatas for a different sister).  It is short, much lighter, and in a completely different sound world.  It's a salon piece, and is a pleasant miniature, but sits rather incongruously amongst the other works on display here.

Throughout the disc, Ehnes' playing is incisive, engaging and energetic, yet he manages to never become too caustic in the more astringent passages of this complex music.  Armstrong matches him brilliantly, and has the measure of when Bartok wants to highlight the conflict between the two instruments, and when the piano has more of a conventional accompanying role (as in parts of the Rhapsodies).  

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