Bartok Rhapsodies 1&2/Violin Concerto 2

Hungarian musicians in a clear front-runner for the Second Violin Concerto

Author: 
Rob Cowan

Bartok Rhapsodies 1&2/Violin Concerto 2

  • Rhapsody No. 1
  • Rhapsody No. 2
  • Concerto for Violin and Orchestra No. 2

If you haven’t yet responded to my enthusiasm for Arabella Steinbacher’s Pentatone recording of Bartók’s Second Concerto with the Suisse Romande under Marek Janowski (11/10), hold fire. Not that I retract, but this hot recent rival offers a viewpoint you may well prefer. It also provides, as one of the fill-ups, an alternative version of the concerto’s finale, more showy, orchestrally, than the one we know but, for the closing pages, without the soloist (the familiar revision was Zoltán Székely’s idea).

Barnabás Kelemen is a more muscular player than Steinbacher, with a grittier edge to his tone, although he brings equal measures of warmth to the slow movement and bows virtually as much light and shade as Thomas Zehetmair does on his fine 1995 recording with the Budapest Festival Orchestra under Iván Fischer (Berlin Classics). Twelve years earlier still, Fischer and Kocsis had formed the BFO with musicians “drawn from the cream of Hungary’s younger players”, whereas in 1997 Kocsis took over the directorship of the rival Hungarian National Philharmonic and was soon achieving similarly thrilling results with his new players.

I make the point because both Fischer and Kocsis provide their soloists with vivid accompaniments, Fischer scoring highest for lightly inflected colour, Kocsis for rhythmic edge and keenness of attack. Zehetmair is the more volatile player and Berlin Classics delivers a warmer recording, softer and more ambient than the dramatic sound stage Hungaroton provides for Kelemen and Kocsis; and Steinbacher and Janowski enjoy the benefit of Pentatone’s luminous, three-dimensional recording for a reading that sits, interpretatively, between the mercurial Zehetmair and the red-blooded Kelemen.

As to the fill-ups, both Zehetmair and Steinbacher offer the youthful, rather Straussian First Concerto, whereas Kelemen gives us the musically more sophisticated (and in my view superior) two Rhapsodies. Both pieces are also presented with alternative versions of their respective second (fast) movements, the First in a viable revision, the tougher-grained Second in a technically challenging but stimulating “original”. Kelemen lunges at both like a man possessed: his bow knows no fear and his orchestral collaborators are with him all the way. An exceptional disc.

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