There was no better place for the Wigmore Hall to begin its season-long Bartók Chamber Music series than with this brilliant recital devoted to works for violin and piano. Though the great Hungarian composer was himself a pianist, he wrote for the violin from the heart, with one or another of his country’s famous female violinists usually the muse – heartbreakingly so in the case of Stefi Geyer and the First Violin Concerto, published only after both composer and violinist had died, John Allison reported.
No one today is better placed to play this music than James Ehnes. A versatile artist, the Canadian violinist has nevertheless made Bartók a speciality and the focus of a big recording project for Chandos. His commanding view of this repertoire allowed him to deliver a perfectly balanced programme reflecting four very different aspects of the composer’s art.
It opened logically with music influenced by Bartók’s ethnomusicological collecting. The Rhapsody No. 1 (1928) shows the composer’s mature style and its way of integrating rural material (mostly Transylvanian tunes) into a sophisticated structure, all illuminated by Ehnes’s bold and gleaming tone. He was matched in every detail by the imaginative pianism of Andrew Armstrong in a fiery performance.
Like his great Romanian and Polish contemporaries George Enescu (also born in 1881) and Karol Szymanowski (born 1882), Bartók held town and country in fascinating balance. A cosmopolitan figure who was to die in New York, he captured the spirit of Budapest in such early works as the 1903 Sonata in E minor, predating his folksong researches. Hungarian dances flicker wistfully, yet this sonata calls for big-boned playing and received it from Ehnes’s soaring violin and Armstrong’s surging piano.
Bartók’s belief in music’s educational value found expression in such piano cycles as For Children, from which his violinist colleague Joseph Szigeti arranged the Hungarian Folk Tunes suite that opened this concert’s second half. The music speaks directly, and came across with wonderful relish and attack.
Bartók the modernist was represented here by his elusive yet highly expressive Violin Sonata No. 2, a searching and restless work dedicated to Adila Arányi in 1922. It calls especially for a staggering range of violinistic technique, but both players met its challenges superbly in a vibrant performance.
If all the Bartók concerts match this recital, it will be a remarkable series.