BARTÓK Violin Concertos (Capuçon)
Writing in the 2013 Awards issue regarding Patricia Kopatchinskaja’s often striking version of Bartók’s Second Concerto (Gramophone Recording of the Year for 2013), Philip Clark observed how ‘performances of the Bartók … have tended to be judged as “folksy” or “modernist”; for Kopatchinskaja and Eötvös [the conductor on the recording] they’re one and the same’. A fair assessment, I’d say, Kopatchinskaja’s rhapsodising approach returning the music to its folk roots, while Eötvös stands by as a more formal commentator. If you want to sample, try the opening minutes of either the first or the third movements. Their recording eschews the now occasional decision to use Bartók’s purely orchestral first ending (Mullova with Salonen and Faust with Harding prefer that option) but they certainly conspire to have the music jump out at you. Faust takes a similar route, at least for part of the journey, whereas the more drily recorded Barnabás Kelemen with Zoltán Kocsis conducting, although thrilling in the way they attack the music, are less wilfully individualistic, and Thomas Zehetmair with Iván Fischer conducting are awash with colour throughout.
With Renaud Capuçon and François-Xavier Roth the issue is less a blend of folksy and modernist than modernist and romantic. Capuçon, like Mullova, makes Bartók’s musical path sound warmingly familiar, a centrist approach which, were it not for Roth’s meticulously attentive approach to the orchestral score, would have you concentrating exclusively on the often dreamy violin line. But time and again while listening I was drawn to this or that salient detail in Bartók’s orchestration: the clarinet behind the trilling soloist at 5'56" into the first movement, for example, while the perky LSO woodwinds make a real play for the jazzy episodes soon afterwards, where Capuçon jumps in with some brilliantly dispatched passagework. And what a sense of infinite sadness Capuçon brings to the opening of the second movement, mellow and seamlessly drawn: this really is beautiful violin-playing.
The opening of the finale is a little formal in comparison with Kopatchinskaja, Kelemen, Zehetmair and Faust but elsewhere a compensating sense of emotional engagement keeps the music vibrant and communicative. And there’s James Ehnes (who usefully couples the two concertos with the Viola Concerto), Arabella Steinbacher and a whole host of golden oldies – so much excellence to choose from.
As to the youthful First Concerto, with its adoring Andante sostenuto and dizzyingly excited Allegro giocoso, Capuçon plays the lover’s role (this was a love poem for the violinist Stefi Geyer) to perfection. Whether I’d choose it as a coupling for the Second Concerto in preference to the two magnificent violin Rhapsodies that Kelemen and Kocsis opt for (with variants) is open to question. That Hungaroton CD would still be my first choice but the considerate and musically persuasive partnership of Capuçon and Roth should certainly take its place among top recommendations for both concertos, especially as the sound is extremely well balanced.