BARTÓK Violin Sonatas
The unprecedented abundance of top-grade Bartók violin sonata recordings throws both critics and collectors into a state of heady confusion. No sooner had I welcomed James Ehnes’s superb Chandos version of the Solo Sonata than along came Barnabás Kelemen with a rival recording that, while not displacing Ehnes, certainly provides a viable alternative to him. The principal difference is in the Presto finale where, by playing the optional quarter-tones, Kelemen pushes the musical tension up a notch or two. Bartók had intended that the ambiguous pitches should add an extra splash of colour to the movement, which in Kelemen’s hands they certainly do. Ehnes’s prevailing virtue is warmth; and while Kelemen prioritises that same quality, he adds a degree of edge that benefits, for example, the fugue, where from the initial entry of the second voice you immediately notice how heightened dynamic contrasts help strengthen the contrapuntal argument.
In the Second Violin Sonata I turned, initially, to Isabelle Faust and Florent Boffard for comparison, checking the two at the start of the second movement, where Kelemen and Kocsis offer an extra degree of rhythmic freedom and by around the 3'20" mark are driving forwards that much harder, with a more playful approach to the jarring dissonances of the bizarre gypsy-like passage that follows soon afterwards. In the finale of the First Sonata Kelemen fans the flames as effectively as Christian Tetzlaff does on his recording but Kocsis is more impetuous than Leif Ove Andsnes, while in the passionate first movement, among the most lyrical of digital versions is the super-budget Naxos option from György Pauk and Jeno˝ Jandó. The same sonata – a potent blend of raw energy and mystical tone-painting – finds equally compelling representation in the duo partnerships of David Oistrakh with Sviatoslav Richter and (especially flammable) Gidon Kremer with Martha Argerich (live in Berlin).
Kelemen and Kocsis can claim the best virtues of all these versions and add to them extra quotas of fire, intensity and a clinching sense of being rooted in the right soil, something that no other recordings achieve to quite the same degree. While I certainly would not dissuade you from staying loyal to any one of the fine alternatives quoted above, I would urge you to add this newcomer to your collection. They don’t come any better than Kelemen and Kocsis, and to have all three masterpieces on a single 76-minute SACD is an added bonus. Authoritative notes are provided.