BARTÓK Violin Concertos Nos 1 & 2
Fancy a study in interpretative contrasts? Try the opening measures of the Second Concerto’s finale, first with Isabelle Faust and Daniel Harding conducting, then with the new Gramophone Recording of the Year from Patricia Kopatchinskaja under Peter Eötvös. Faust is crisp, attentive and alert, whereas Kopatchinskaja adds to those same virtues a feisty lilt and a sense of danger-infused gamesmanship that’s quite unlike any other recording of the work. The trouble is that what starts out as ‘character’ can soon rankle, whereas Faust, who in general opts for a less affected approach (she took a cue or two from Zoltán Székely’s recorded world premiere under Mengelberg), proves, in the short term at least, rather more durable. Sensitivity, subtlety and energy are among Faust’s priorities and, like Kopatchinskaja, Barnabás Kelemen and Arabella Steinbacher, she enjoys superlative orchestral support. Although brilliant and frequently combative, hers is a performance whose primary intention is to convey the concerto’s dialogic elements, and in that she is fully matched by Harding and the Swedish RSO. Intimacy is another virtue (beam up 3'23" into the first movement), with a whole host of underlying detail rallying for meaningful attention. Kelemen (under Zoltán Kocsis) plays ‘like a man possessed’ (as I said in my original review), though there’s a fair degree of demonic gesturing in Faust’s performance too. Kelemen’s CD includes, in addition to the finale as we know it, the optional ‘orchestra only’ ending, whereas Faust and Harding, unlike Kopatchinskaja and Eötvös, offer no choice in the matter – the orchestral close rounds the work off rather in the manner of the Concerto for Orchestra.
Like Steinbacher (under Marek Janowski), Thomas Zehetmair (Iván Fischer) and the pleasingly lyrical James Ehnes (Gianandrea Noseda), Faust chooses to couple the great Second Concerto with the earlier, lovelorn, head-in-the-clouds, deliriously romantic First Concerto, where she appears to have returned to various primary sources in pursuit of the work’s excitable spirit. In the second movement Harding and his players engage Faust in some pretty fierce sparring: no doubt about it, the mad vicissitudes of young love are passionately conveyed. A super disc and first-rate engineering; but do remember that, in addition to the two violin concertos, Ehnes adds the far sparer Viola Concerto, which is also well worth acquiring.