BARTÓK Violin Concerto No 1 (Vilde Frang)
Absolutely stunning. Had the Heifetz-Piatigorsky team tackled Enescu’s string Octet, I doubt that they would have topped this version by Vilde Frang and friends. Although a relatively early work, the Octet has in common with Brahms’s early chamber music a striking level of maturity, the opening motif setting the scene for a 37 minute roller coaster that en route takes in warmth, Bartókian aggression, interrupted calm and, to close, a sort of valse macabre at top speed. Furthermore, the thematic material that Enescu conjures is invariably memorable.
Frang is joined by seven top-ranking players (including viola player Lawrence Power) who, in the fiery second movement especially, make expressive capital out of Enescu’s dizzily interweaving textures. Interesting too how the transition from that same movement to the initially tranquil Lentement third movement resembles, in its effect, the parallel shift from ‘storm’ to ‘shepherd’s hymn’ in Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony. Enescu’s string-writing often has a Regerian complexity about it, though, unlike Reger, endless modulation isn’t a feature of his style. What most absorbs me about this wonderful piece are its rich ingredients, an aspect that Frang and her collaborators appear to relish to the full. There are other versions available – including an excellent online live performance led by Janine Jansen – but none quite matches Frang’s team for spontaneity, ardour and keenness of attack.
In an ideal world, I would have preferred more Enescu (a violin sonata, perhaps) as a fill-up rather than Bartók’s First Concerto, especially considering a plethora of fine Bartók concerto recordings that has appeared in recent years. Still, Frang again hits the target, especially in the Allegro giocoso second movement, which she plays with lightning inflections, switching in a trice from breathless animation to sighing lyricism, always with a light touch. For me this music epitomises the heady excitement of youthful infatuation (such as I remember it!) and Mikko Franck draws consistently alert playing from his French players. Sound quality throughout is first rate, so I predict a potential Gramophone Awards nominee for 2019. Fingers crossed.