BARTÓK: Violin Concerto No. 1. Violin Concerto No. 2.
Isabelle Faust (violin); Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra/Daniel Harding.
Harmonia Mundi HMC 902146 TT: 67:12.

Sensitive. For the longest time, few knew that Bartók actually wrote two violin concertos: not only the popular one from 1938, but another from almost 30 years before. The First premiered in the Fifties, more than a decade after Bartók's death. It's a honey. The composer wrote it as a love-note to a violinist, Steffi Geyer, he fell for. They were together for a while; then she broke it off. Bartók still wanted to give her the premiere, but she declined. In two movements, the concerto paints a portrait of the beloved. The first movement, one of the loveliest Bartók ever wrote, shows the woman as an ideal. Considering it too good to throw away, the composer altered it a bit to make it the first movement of his Two Portraits. The second movement, humorous and a little grotesque, shows Geyer's playful side.

The second concerto, from the same period as the composer's Contrasts for Szigeti and Benny Goodman, is generally acknowledged as one of the best of the previous century. Bartók spent a year thinking about it and studying the violin concerti of Szymanowski, Berg, and Weill. He proposed to the commissioning violinist a one-movement concerto, a giant variation set. The violinist insisted on three separate movements, and Bartók obliged, in a way. The second movement consists of variations, and finale varies every major motif in the previous two movements. Bartók explained it as his dislike of repeating something exactly in the same form and thus the variation technique came naturally to him
The two concerti don't differ all that much in their language, although the spirit of folk music imbues the second more deeply. Nevertheless, there's still plenty of goulash in the first, particularly in the second movement. I believe most listeners would recognize them both as Bartók's, despite the long years between them.

The first concerto opens daringly, with a violin absolutely all alone, as soft as it can get and without vibrato, singing a rising arpeggiated theme. I wonder about the intonation problems. Another solo violin enters, then a solo viola and finally a solo cello. Gradually, other instruments join in, but for a while it sounds like a chamber piece. Indeed, it looks forward to the First String Quartet, where that opening theme is a clone of this one. Bartók builds the movement as a long, subtle crescendo and fade. It takes the form of continuous variation and moves with the gravity of a passacaglia. It just about defines longing. Its final pages glow. The rambunctious second movement capers about, with lots of special bowings and chordal-stopping for the soloist. Lyric passages provide relief, but they don't hang around. We hear country fiddling and folk elements, as well as a couple of measures for violin and harp that apparently hung around in Bartók's composing subconscious, to be developed in the Violin Concerto No. 2. Then Bartók switches gears. The antics give way to an extended passage of intense sensuality. A set of "merry" dances creep in before the sensuousness creeps in again, complete with a quote of the first-movement theme. Abruptly, the work ends in a grotesque gesture, as if Steffi Geyer, to borrow a phrase from Isabelle Faust, suddenly stuck out her tongue.

As I've noted, the second concerto opens with that wonderful harp-and-violin-solo texture from the first, here transformed from a glimmer to a significant portion of an entire movement. Bartók builds it out of three main ideas, important to remember, since they will reappear in various guises in the finale. The form resembles verbunkos, a Hungarian genre consisting of a slow section, filled with a characteristic dotted rhythm and followed by a quick. Liszt's famous Hungarian Rhapsody (I forget the number; the one in Bugs Bunny cartoons) is a familiar (if bastardized) example, as is Rosalinde's party aria in Die Fledermaus. The second movement begins with a heartbreaking theme, very folk-like but I think a Bartók original, which then goes through six contrasting variations. The finale is a phantasmagoria of all the previous themes, each varied relentlessly within the movement. It gives off a hallucinatory air, at times a bit like the Weill concerto, although much less bleak. Bartók also treats us to some magnificent brass writing that will "break into blossom" in the Concerto for Orchestra's first-movement fugue. The last section is a fast break to the blazing finish.

Isabelle Faust does her usual thing of "boning up" through examination of original scores and letters. Harding and the Swedes have their moments. For me, the highpoint occurs at the opening of the first concerto, which achieves thrilling chamber-music unanimity. Faust plays beautifully, but with a curious reserve. The interpretation of both concerti that I keep going back to is André Gertler's (Janos Ferencsik conducting the first, Karl Ancerl the second). Faust surpasses him technically and probably has deeper understanding of the score, but Gertler bores into you. A fine job this time around, but there may be such a thing as too much good taste.

S.G.S. (September 2014)