Bartók ViolinSonatas 1 & 2;Rhapsodies 1 & 2
Rather than opt for the sonatas first with the Rhapsodies as makeweights, or favouring a purely chronological route, James Ehnes and Andrew Armstrong have provided a valuable study in contrasts, letting us in gently with the affable First Rhapsody, then delving among the deeper shadows of the two-tier Second Sonata, emerging from there to the darker, more exotic-sounding Second Rhapsody before hurling us headlong into the swirling storms and nightscapes of the First Sonata. The early, Brahmsian Andante and alternative (actually more familiar) ending for the First Rhapsody serve more or less as encores.
The performances are assertive but never excessively forceful, tonally sweet (useful in this often acerbic music) and, from Andrew Armstrong’s standpoint, almost impressionist in their projection of nuance and tonal shading. Maybe the finale of the First Sonata doesn’t quite match the reckless bravura of Martha Argerich (for Gidon Kremer) or Sviatoslav Richter (for David Oistrakh), but control is a laudable virtue and the result is that one attends as much to the notes as to the effect they’re having. Interesting to have both endings for the First Rhapsody but the alternative finale to the Second would have been even more welcome, and of course there’s the early Sonata of 1903 which, like the 1902 Andante that we’re given, shows a budding Romantic before the seeds of dissonance had flown his way.
The only set to include all this material – all of Bartók’s music for violin and piano in fact – is a very generous two-CD collection on Zephyr with Sherban Lupu and Ian Hobson. Lupu is at his most ravishing and gypsy-like in the unaccompanied opening of the First Sonata’s slow movement (Ehnes’s purity is also attractive, though Lupu digs deeper), but elsewhere Hobson’s piano too often hogs the limelight. André Gertler and Diane Andersen, in their authoritatively interpreted four-CD Supraphon collection, offer us all three sonatas, the (orchestrated) Rhapsodies, the concertos and other works.
So, summing up, Ehnes and Armstrong provide an exceedingly generous programme (80'30"), expertly engineered, well planned, beautifully executed. Theirs is certainly an excellent place to start but do try if you can to investigate the very different alternatives mentioned.