Bartók Works for Violin & Orchestra
It is rare indeed to encounter a concerto recording where the critical honours can be evenly distributed, but this Bartok Second Violin Concerto really does suggest a strong team spirit. Heard purely for its own sake, Kyung-Wha Chung's playing is sinewy, agile and occasionally a mite brittle: phrasing is always judicious, but tone production is generally less physically engaging than, say, Kyoko Takezawa's under Michael Tilson Thomas. Yet one soon realizes that every passage has been carefully thought through—the opening sequence, for example, which Chung traces as a continuous line of monologue. However, it is when soloist and conductor grapple in dialogue that the sparks really start to fly. Rattle and his players make the very most of Bartok's orchestral commentary: instrumental interplay is always alert, rhythms are keenly focused and his way of cushioning Chung, palpably convincing (try, by way of an example, the closing moments of the second movement—from, say, 9'20''). The first movement has immense dash, with dramatic tuttis and a wealth of detail busying behind and around the solo line. Time and again, I found myself jotting observations relating to dynamic shading, sensitive woodwind phrasing and the warmth of the CBSO strings (especially when playing piano—as in the opening minutes of the Andante tranquillo). The third movement hangs together well, its mirror imaging of the first convincingly presented. Rattle again displays a comprehensive understanding of Bartok's highly individual tonal palette: every component gleams and no significant detail is allowed to pass unnoticed.
The well-matched Rhapsody recordings (taped at Cheltenham Hall rather than City Hall, Birmingham) are, again, revealing. The solo line is nicely attenuated, and the overall approach one of fine-tuned improvisation. Detail is legion (note the way solo violin and woodwinds intertwine at the beginning of the Second Rhapsody's second movement) and Rattle compounds the rhapsodic idea by shaping his phrases with imaginatively applied rubato. In fact, I don't recall hearing any Hungarian performances that sound quite this idiomatic. So, it's a strong recommendation, with the sole proviso that Kyoko Takezawa has a rather more ingratiating tonal profile than Kyung-Wha Chung. However, Chung is certainly a more probing Bartokian than she was at the time of her 1977 recording of the piece, under Solti; and her poignantly expressed intelligence will doubtless prove a durable virtue. As to older rivals, none is better conducted or recorded than Rattle's—but with such charismatic soloists as Gitlis, Menuhin (his first recording, made in 1946), Stern and Szeryng all available at mid-price or less, seasoned violin-fanciers would be well advised not to ignore the past.'