Bartók Violin Concertos Nos 1 and 2
Arabella Steinbacher and Marek Janowski offer us Bartók in 3D, the three dimensions not only spatial but emotional as well. I can’t think of a version of the Second Concerto, past or present, where structure and content are more thoughtfully balanced, or where significant points in the score are more lovingly underlined. I lost count of the number of times I paused the CD player to note this or that salient detail, but for those interested enough to check for themselves, I’ll quote just a few. For openers, the woodwinds winding their way around the soloist as she unfolds the concerto’s first theme; the way Steinbacher eases her vibrato and softens her tone (a sort of implied expression of ecstasy) before lunging into the muscular second idea, the Suisse Romande woodwinds responding with humorous comments of their own; and while all this is going on, the clarity of the strings’ important (but often obscured) pizzicatos. The ensemble is watertight and the recording doesn’t miss a trick. Then you might check out from 3'00", where the violin trills against a series of mysterious string chords before Bartók brings a warming flush to his accompaniment (3'32") then fires off again freshly energised. If all this sounds like the self-obsessed wittering of a critic seduced merely by detail, please believe me that it isn’t: everything about this production works on behalf of Bartók’s wonderful score, and that includes the second movement’s juxtaposing of mists and percussion-topped hyperactivity, and the finale’s often dramatic mirror-imaging of the first movement. It all leaps from the speakers.
The First Concerto also benefits from the Steinbacher/Janowski treatment, the first movement a simple love song, the Straussian Allegro giocoso second movement spontaneous and unguarded, just like the youthful infatuation that inspired it. But it’s the Second Concerto that really makes this an essential purchase, even for those whose collections already include versions by Shaham and Boulez (DG, 6/99) and Zehetmair and Fischer (Berlin Classics), not to mention a plethora of vintage alternatives. Mark my words, when Steinbacher joins their ranks, she won’t be forgotten.