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Béla BARTÓK (1881-1945)
Violin Concerto No. 1 [22:06]
Violin Concerto No. 2 [35:48]
Isabelle Faust (violin)
Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra/Daniel Harding
rec. Berwaldhallen, Stockholm, April 2012
HARMONIA MUNDI HMC 902146 [57:59]

A new release from Isabelle Faust is worth getting excited about. Her recent recordings - most notably her Brahms, Beethoven and Berg concertos - have been universally acclaimed, so I was already well disposed to this Bartók disc even before I pressed play. It lives up to the hype with solo playing of sensitivity and playfulness and an orchestral sound that fits it like a hand to a glove.
Faust is the star of the show and she is, indeed, marvellous throughout. In the First Concerto her playing is sensitive, delicate, tentative even, pointing up the tenderness of the concerto and reminding us that it is, effectively, a love letter to Stefi Geyer. I loved the mood of the opening where, as Faust spins out the solo line, the orchestral violins slowly join in, gradually joined by the rest of the orchestra, building up a web of sound that is utterly beguiling. The violin becomes increasingly rapturous as the movement progresses, echoing the soaring emotions of the young composer. The orchestral sound also develops a soaring quality, buoyed up by Harding’s sensitive direction which is controlled and disciplined but which also knows when to let go. There is then a much more subversive mood to the second movement, which fully lives up to its giocoso marking. Faust romps away at the beginning, but then becomes much more refined and delicate as the second subject creeps in, and it’s marvellous listening to this theme unfurl in the context of the wider orchestra. Around about the five-minute mark there is a lovely moment where the violin seems to be stamping its feet against the thrums of the orchestra, and the riot of colour provided by the winds throughout this movement sounds so fresh that it might as well have just been flicked off a paintbrush. Faust’s passage-work is never merely for show but always to serve the purpose of the music, and the return of Stefi’s theme at the very end is very delicately handled.
The Second Concerto is, if anything, even finer. The opening verbunkos theme unfolds with a mixture of nobility and good humour. Faust seems to revel in the opportunity to lead it off into all sorts of unexpected directions, with some astonishing double-stops and runs. Playfulness then takes over before the rhapsodically beautiful emergence of the second theme which unfolds with an exploratory sense of excitement. This combination of skittishness and nobility, in all the right proportions, makes for a constantly refreshing reading of this movement, and the cadenza, when it arrives, really catches fire in her hands. The change of key in the final bars still manages to sound surprising, and the slow movement which follows begins with a wonderful statement of the main theme, played with beautiful simplicity by Faust and atmospherically accompanied by Harding and the orchestra. This sets up a partnership that continues for the rest of the movement. The accompaniment of the second variation is particularly special, the mysterious sounds of the orchestra appearing to float in from afar, while Faust’s daredevil runs of the fifth are remarkable. The finale is then full of momentum and pyrotechnics, and they choose the rarely heard original ending of the work that Bartók wrote before Zoltán Székely, the violinist who asked the composer for the work, insisted that he wanted a coda that featured a stronger part for the violin. Here, in Bartók’s original thoughts, the orchestra romps home with a riotous climax featuring trombones that sound as though they have been let loose in a china shop.
This disc is a winner. The sensitivity of the playing and the empathy of the orchestral accompaniment put it in a very special class which is worthy of comparison with any other set in the catalogue. The most recent pair of the Bartók concertos to come my way was Arabella Steinbacher’s recording with Marek Janowski and the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande. It’s super too, but more extroverted and a touch less sympathetic than this version. So it is to Faust and Harding that I will be returning next time I want to hear these concertos. This disc deserves to win many friends.
Simon Thompson