James Ehnes is one of the leading violinists of
our time, and he and the pianist Andrew Armstrong follow their first
of Bartók with a second. The repertoire ranges across
both extremes of the composer’s career, from the early duo sonata
of 1903 to the late solo Sonata of 1944 written for Yehudi Menuhin.
In between come various folk-inspired compositions.
The early Sonata in E minor is a substantial composition, more than
thirty minutes in duration. The excellent accompanying notes by the
leading Bartók scholar Paul Griffiths outline the background
and nature of the music, providing a very useful guide for the listener
coming to the work for the first time. He rightly points out that the
composer’s style was not fully developed at this time, but his
technique was confident. Perhaps the finale is the strongest movement,
its structure enhancing the virtuoso line for both players, and moving
through to an emphatic and stirring conclusion which is emphasised by
the splendidly realistic Chandos recording.
However, it is the Sonata for solo violin that is the major work here.
Alongside the more celebrated Third Piano Concerto and Concerto for
Orchestra, this was among the fruits of Bartók’s last years.
Inevitably the example of Bach was an inspiration that lay behind this
music. Facing the challenge of composing a substantial piece using just
one instrumental line, Bartók produced a masterwork of extraordinary
technical and expressive qualities. In the first movement for example,
the title Tempo di ciaccona
refers to the pace of the music rather
than to its structure; in fact there is a sonata design of the traditional
'exposition-development-recapitulation-coda' variety. These divisions
are marked by the appearances of the broad multiple-stopped motif -
multiple stings played simultaneously - which is heard at the outset.
This theme, therefore, sets the tone for the whole experience. It is
a great challenge to the performer and James Ehnes confirms his stature
with a commanding presentation, a description that serves for the whole
The remaining items are all duo arrangements or, more truthfully, rewritings
of music originally conceived as solos for Bartók’s own
instrument, the piano. Both the Hungarian Folksongs
by Tividar Országh) and the Hungarian Folk Tunes
by Joseph Szigeti) originated in the enormous collection of piano pieces
entitled For Children
. Better known are the attractive Romanian
(here in a version arranged by Zoltán Székely).
All this music proves extremely adaptable and Ehnes and Armstrong perform
it with the utmost assurance. It is at the opposite remove from the
intensity of style that is found in the Sonata for solo violin, but
it is equally typical of the composer’s art.