BEETHOVEN: Violin Sonata No. 9 in A, op. 47, "Kreutzer." BARTÓK: Rhapsody No. 1 for Violin and Piano. Violin Sonata No. 2. DEBUSSY: Violin Sonata.
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 major idea 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. Beethoven omits it from the development altogether. Thus, he gives the movement over mainly to bravura display and fury, including violin power chords off-the-beat 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, Szigeti 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 likely the 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, Debussy 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 the 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, rather 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 that Bartók 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 Bartók 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 elegance comes from his willingness to build to climax over long spans, rather than to slam into the music at the slightest opportunity. Furthermore, the duo 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.

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S.G.S. (November 2013)