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Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Surprises from Bartok.

Bela BARTOK (1881-1945)

Andante for violin and piano (1902) [3:44]
Sonata for violin and piano (1903) [29:15]
Hungarian Folksongs for violin and piano (1934/54) [9:41]
Sonata for solo violin (1944) [28:33]

Elise Båtnes, (violin)
Håvard Gimse, (piano)

Recorded 3-5 September 2005 and 20-21 November in Sofienberg Church, Oslo.

SIMAX PSC 1174 [71:24]

It is interesting that Bela Bartók, a pianist, should devote so large a part of his output, and indeed some of his deepest thoughts to music for the violin. This may be due in part to his relationships with some of Hungary’s finest violinists, namely, Jenö Hubey, Stefi Geyer, Jelly d’Arányi, Joseph Szigeti and with the great Yehudi Menuhin. Thankfully these friendships spawned not only the works on this recording, but also the six string quartets and the two violin concerti.

Opening with Bartók’s earliest known violin work, Elise Båtnes and Håvard Gimse give us a tender performance of the Andante for violin and piano, which is possessed of so sweet a melody that we are led to wonder if this isn’t a piece of salon music by a lesser composer. No indeed, this is the work of a young master composed oddly on the back of twelve postcards and given to a friend and fellow student Adila d’Aranyi as a little musical greeting card. Would that Hallmark™ could produce such gems.

The sonata of 1903 is another student composition, and although very well crafted, it shows the influence of Brahms and Dvorak on the young composer. The melodies are bold and sweeping and the accompaniment is lush and romantic and full of the late nineteenth century harmonic progressions. Of particular interest and merit is the gypsy themed second movement, played here with a dark and compelling passion.

Bartók, along with his colleague Zoltan Kodaly, were pioneers in the field of ethnomusicology, and the both of them travelled throughout the Hungarian countryside capturing authentic performances of folksongs on the newly invented phonograph. This research led both composers to integrate these songs into their more formal compositions, thus preserving the old in the clothes of the new. The nine little gems here are brief and sometimes even abrupt, but are altogether captivating with their spicy harmonies and stirring dance-like rhythms. Ms. Båtnes and Mr. Gimse tear into them with abandon and produce a splendid contrast to the more rhapsodic and serious sonatas.

The unaccompanied sonata was written for Yehudi Menuhin and is the last work that Bartók was able to complete in every detail. Clearly modeled after Sebastian Bach’s Sonatas and Partitas, Bartók uses ancient formal structures in a kind of homage to the great baroque composer. This is the most harmonically adventuresome of the works presented here, and Ms. Båtnes gives us a sensitive and virtuosic performance. Her rich tone applied in the warmer passages, contrasted with a pointed clear sound in the more biting harmonies.

This collection was full of surprises and is a disc that I shall certainly return to again and again. For one who is accustomed to the sharper, more dissonant music of the string quartets, these generous and hearty works came as a pleasant discovery. This recording fulfills what I believe to be any recording’s biggest mission; to leave the listener satisfied and wanting to explore more of a composer’s music. In this regard, this is a most satisfying performance. Program notes are thorough, interesting and thankfully devoid of academic blather. Sound quality is up to Simax’ customary high standards.

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