Notes and Editorial Reviews
Violin Sonatas: Nos. 1, 2. Rhapsodies: Nos. 1, 2. Andante in A,
Alternate ending for Rhapsody No. 1
James Ehnes (vn); Andrew Armstrong (pn)
CHANDOS 10705 (80:30)
Violinist James Ehnes and pianist Andrew Armstrong open the first volume of their collection of works for violin and piano by Béla Bartók with the composer’s First Rhapsody in a reading that provides a burst of ethnic flavor. Gil Shaham’s by no means
vapid reading with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra on Deutsche Grammophon 289 459 639, reviewed by both James H. North and me in
22:6, sounds by comparison more homogenized, despite that violinist’s generally insightful way with Bartók. Even Joseph Szigeti (the work’s dedicatee) and the composer himself, in their celebrated recital at the Library of Congress on April 13, 1940, hardly made its folk dances sound more convivial than Ehnes. Paul Griffiths’s notes discuss the way in which the composer borrowed popular materials for the rhapsodies and how he provided a new, more lively ending for the piece, an ending that Szigeti preferred to the original more somber one. Ehnes and Armstrong include that alternate ending at the end of their program.
While Isaac Stern would reduce thorny works like Bartók’s sonatas to so many humanly comprehensible gestures, others, like Mark Kaplan (who seemed to “revel in the sheer joy of aggressive dissonance” on Arabesque 6649—
18:2) and perhaps even Szigeti and Bartók themselves, have preferred not to cosmetize the difficulties for either performer or listener, tearing at ligaments and ears willy-nilly. Ehnes, like Stern with Yefim Bronfman (Sony 69245,
21:1), plays with an easy elegance that makes the Second Sonata almost genial without watering down the gravamen of its musical charge (on the other hand, Stern, who tells a story in every phrase of everything he plays, makes larger-scale gestures, perhaps making the sonata’s rhetoric more comprehensible). His tone on the 1715 Marsick Stradivari remains elegant and beguiling even through the first movement’s most angular passages. Armstrong proves a sympathetic and insightful partner, generating with Ehnes a powerful electric charge in the second movement. The duo gives a sparkling, sprightly reading of the Second Rhapsody, once again emphasizing the almost popular character of its folk dances. They don’t hit the wall in the thorny First Sonata, dedicated, like the Second, to violinist Jelly d’Aranyi (the violinist whose improvisations of an evening inspired Maurice Ravel’s
). In fact, Ehnes’s reading of the First Sonata shares many characteristics with his performance of the Second: beauty of tone, a subtly inflected exploration of the work’s ethnic character, as well as a strong, even explosive propulsion that nevertheless wreaks no damage in the tumultuous third movement, to which he imparts both a robust, ruddy glow and an electric sizzle. His dissonances don’t grind, although they do add intense, even super-saturated, colorings to the music (how many violinists simply grind away at these against a relentlessly gray background?). How did d’Aranyi herself play the sonatas dedicated to her? Does Bartók’s performance of the Second with Szigeti, on the recital mentioned above, preclude alternative approaches? These questions may come almost forcibly to mind as listeners enjoy exploring the sonatas anew with Ehnes and Armstrong as guides. The program ends with the Andante, a salon-like piece, by turns sweetly ingratiating and ardently soaring, that Bartók wrote as a student as a memento for Adila d’Aranyi, one of Jelly’s sisters. Finally, as mentioned, he’s appended the alternative ending to the First Rhapsody.
If Ehnes’s and Armstrong’s insightful performances, by turns meditative and menacing yet always controlled and timbrally rich, don’t win friends among former skeptics, nothing can. The most unhesitating general recommendation.
FANFARE: Robert Maxham
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