BEETHOVEN: Violin Sonata No. 9 in A, op. 47, "Kreutzer." BARTÓK:
Rhapsody No. 1 for Violin and Piano. Violin Sonata No. 2. DEBUSSY: Violin
Joseph Szigeti (violin); Bela Bartók (piano).
PRISTINE AUDIO PACM 084 TT: 69:43.
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Can't touch this. Almost all of us have attended wonderful concerts, but
how many of us sat in the audience when significant musical history was
made? Certain concerts, not all that many, stand out undimmed after many,
many years. We can point to the 1807 marathon that saw the premieres of
Beethoven's Fourth Piano Concerto, Fourth, Fifth, and Sixth Symphonies,
and the Choral Fantasy, Mendelssohn's 1829 performance of an abbreviated
St. Matthew Passion by Bach in Berlin, and the May 1913 free-for-all premiere
of Stravinsky's Le Sacre du printemps. I think one could argue for this
April 13, 1940, Library of Congress recital as one of those legendary concerts.
Thank goodness, the Library of Congress decided not only to allow recording
but to record the concert itself. After all, it marked Bartók's
American debut. The performers had a strong sense of occasion and didn't
spare themselves with easy repertoire. We have a fiery performance of Beethoven's "Kreutzer" sonata,
the stormiest and stressiest of his violin works, comparable to the Pathétique piano
sonata. Like much of Beethoven, this piece exhibits distinct oddities.
The first movement consists of fragments, beginning with an opening reminiscent
of Bach's solo violin pieces. Beethoven did know some of Bach's work,
although I'm unsure whether he knew the violin music. This leads to the
of the work -- just two notes, often a rising half-step, in a weak-strong
rhythm -- which grow into several themes. We also encounter a lyrical
section, used just twice -- once in the exposition, and once in the recap.
omits it from the development altogether. Thus, he gives the movement
over mainly to bravura display and fury, including violin power chords
which at the very end switch to on-the-beat. There are lots of "Kreutzers" out
there, many by major collaborators. Szigeti and Bartók stand out
in their ability to clarify a coherent thematic argument, while keeping
up the heat.
The second movement, a long variation set starts out in a way consistent
with the conventions of the Eighteenth Century, but Beethoven deceives
you in that he chooses a wildly asymmetric theme -- eight measures plus
eighteen measures, with repeats -- not that you notice this right away,
of course. In many of the variations, Beethoven writes out the repeat,
allowing him to vary the variation. Furthermore, as the variations proceed,
they become structurally further from the theme until at the end we get
something like a fantasia on the two halves. Szigeti and Bartók
do fine, but they remain within a crowd of fine renderings of this movement.
The manic finale alternates between the extremes of a sugar high and
great tenderness, separated by hairpin shifts. As in the first movement,
and Bartók seamlessly slip into one and then another. The rhythm
crackles, aided in large part by the duo's ability to make expressive use
of accented notes. You can find performances more suave and more together
(this is, after all, a recording of a live concert) -- not that anything
gets horrendously "out" -- but very few so passionate.
Debussy's violin sonata stands as his final work. The composer intended
a series of six sonatas, but completed only three before his death from
cancer. Debussy refused to repeat himself. Indeed, he feared his facility
so much that he kept his output relatively small. After all, it's difficult
to do something new every time out. The late works are notable for a
severe compression of thought and enigmatic psychology. Beethoven was
first composer to insist on the structural validity of the fragment (see,
for example, the Missa Solemnis, made up of one fragment after another).
However, the fragments usually run long enough to shape the time coherently.
Debussy's compression pushes the limits of comprehensibility. Instead
of building a coherent narrative or a closed song or dance structure,
strings his fragments like beads on a necklace. The fragments reappear
throughout the sonata's three brief movements. Don't look for classical
forms like sonata, despite the score's title. Section follows section
in an "associative" manner. Obviously, pulling together a lucid
statement constitutes the main challenge to performers. Bartók
and Szigeti don't quite bring it off -- it sounds effortful, rather than
graceful slips from one state to another I believe the composer envisioned
-- but then neither does any other performance I've heard. We need a
team who have completely absorbed the music as part of their psyches,
than adepts putting together a reading.
The Bartók scores have special interest, since the composer himself
plays the piano. We learn at least how he thought the music should go.
The scores couldn't differ more: the Rhapsody, Bartók lite; the
Sonata, Bartók leaded.
In 1928-29, he wrote two violin rhapsodies, quite frankly as lollipops
to give audiences a rest during his concerts. Nevertheless, both scores
exhibit considerable craft. He orchestrated both and revised the second
in either 1935 or 1944. The rhapsodies reveal Bartók moving from
his avant-gardisme of the Twenties to a style closer to the
folk music that formed the basis of his composition. This doesn't mean
suddenly became a cuddlemuffin, but that he no longer felt the need to
be hard-nosed all the time. The First Rhapsody has two movements, marked lassú (slow) and friss (fresh, or fast). Lassú makes me think
of bravura urban gypsy fiddling (a hint of Liszt here), while friss strikes
a rustic note, reminiscent of Grieg. Composer and violinist become consummate
entertainers. Szigeti, usually talked about as a "steely" or
elegant player, never gets enough credit for his sly geniality, when the
music calls for it. Bartók creates a wealth of color from his
piano, and the duo move from section to section as one.
I greatly admire, even love, Bartók's entire output. However, I
confess that both his violin sonatas (although not the solo violin sonata)
remain hard nuts for me. Both come from, for me, his most difficult period,
the early Twenties, when he seemed anxious to prove his Modernist credentials.
He premiered sonatas in Paris to a gathering of top composers. After the
performance, he teased Carl Nielsen, the Danish symphonist, with the remark, "Modern
enough for you, Mr. Nielsen?" -- annoying the older man considerably.
I consider both sonatas among Bartók's knottiest works. I've listened
to them for roughly forty years and have yet to crack either. To be honest,
however, I admit I don't listen to them as often as I would need to. I
got off to a bad start with my first recording, featuring Isaac Stern and
Alexander Zakin. I got the impression that none of us had a clue, certainly
not me. I went so far as to buy a score, which confirmed my suspicions.
I've heard Mutter and Kremer. Mutter takes the sonata "as she feels
it," normally a good thing, but here her interpretation has only a
minimum relevance to the score. Kremer at least follows the score but fails
to reveal it to heathenish me. In fact until now the only recording that
has helped me is the one with violinist Tim Vogler and pianist Jascha Nemtsov
(Hänssler Profil PH09001). What that account showed me were in fact
the links between this sonata and the Rhapsodies. We have the same song
and dance rhythms, the same bagpipe drones and cimbalom figurations,
the same lassú/friss relationship between the sonata's two movements.
Composers aren't always the best interpreters of their own music, but
and Szigeti deliver an exciting, colorful account. Bartók's piano
once again provides a near-orchestral variety; the man is totally inside
his sonorities. Szigeti, occasionally rhythmically out of synch with
the piano, nevertheless gives a passionate, yet elegant account. The
comes from his willingness to build to climax over long spans, rather
than to slam into the music at the slightest opportunity. Furthermore,
gives you insight into the thematic argument of the sonata like almost
nobody else. In this case, it's good to be the composer.
This recital has long been available in the U.S. on the Vanguard label.
However, the quality of the Pristine sound considerably betters the Vanguard
incarnation. It's not a matter of merely reducing clicks, crackle, and
pops while enhancing clarity, but the Pristine XR process, which imparts
a roundedness and depth to the sound, despite the mono recording. Whether
your ears are tender enough to demand such plush treatment at the increased
cost and time, you must decide. One way or the other, you really should
hear this recital, if only for the Beethoven.
S.G.S. (November 2013)