Bartók; Eötvós; Kurtág Viola Works
Shafts of twilight fall across Peter Eotvos’s Replica for viola and orchestra much as they do in his opera Three Sisters. Replica is astonishing music where foggy harmonies hover be-tween startled highs and raucous lows, then mutate into a strange, sickly pulsing (for example, at 7'26''). Think of a malignant outgrowth of Wozzeck, of a troubled unconscious that can trigger violence at any moment (as at 9'14'') and you’ll have part of the picture. Replica was composed for – and is dedicated to – Kim Kashkashian, who plays it magnificently.
By contrast, Gyorgy Kurtag’s early, post-Bartokian Movement for Viola and Orchestra is relatively conventional, with plenty of virtuoso viola writing and the expected alternations between busy solo work and bold orchestral tutti. It’s roughly two-thirds of a concerto that Kurtag had completed in 1953-54 and it wears its traditional influences lightly. I enjoyed the piece, but much preferred Replica.
The first point to be made about Kashkashian’s superbly engineered recording of the Bartok Viola Concerto is that it bears witness to a total identification between performer and composer. Even the tiny pause (00'43'') bridging the opening and the secondary idea growing out of it, is perfectly judged. Kashkashian makes this music dance, not just in the finale (where racy rhythms hold sway) but in the way she phrases and articulates the entire piece. Listen, for example, to the ‘lift’ she brings to the passage at 2'44'' into the first movement, just before one of the many contrapuntal tutti build-ups that glance sideways at the Concerto for Orchestra.
Peter Eotvos’s conducting offers many parallel insights, not least towards the end of the first movement where a growing sense of agitation throws the succeeding Adagio religioso into a particularly favourable light. Eotvos uses Tibor Serly’s completion, revising odd details and accommodating ‘a few articulations and phrasings’ (I quote from ECM’s press release) that Kashkashian has herself instigated. The principal points of comparison aren’t so much with other recordings of the Serly edition (Wolfram Christ on DG is Kashkashian’s most alluring rival) as with the Peter Bartok/Paul Neubauer revision that Hong-Mei Xiao recorded for Naxos back in 1997. Differences between the ‘new’ edition and the ‘old’ (there are hundreds of smaller ones) include the deletion of Serly’s bassoon (linking the first and second movements) and a tiny orchestral passage that Serly inserted at the very end of the work. More controversial, perhaps, was the decision to remove the bird-song woodwind flourishes that had been added to the middle section of the second movement.
Having lived with both versions for some time, I re-affirm my loyalty to Serly. That he employed a composer’s intuition to delve beyond the notes, adding material wherever he felt the need, increases my confidence in his work. Those flourishes are fully in line with the many wind-topped ‘night music’ passages found elsewhere in Bartok’s concertos and I’m troubled by their absence.
For me, this new version sweeps the board though I would strongly advise purchasing the Naxos disc, which provides a vital – and well performed – ‘appendix’ of both the Serly and the Peter Bartok/Paul Neubauer editions. But if you need convincing that Bartok’s Viola Concerto is a great work, then Kashkashian and Eotvos should, between them, do the trick.'