Ain’t young love grand? Unless it’s unrequited. And, so goes the sad story of the very young, very naive Bela Bartok hopelessly in love with fiddler Stefi Geyer. So much in one way love that he wrote his Violin Concerto No. 1 (1907) for her, for which, she promptly told him to get stuffed! The concerto was hidden away and not played until both had died.
Later, when in the full bloom of musical maturity, Bartok had at another violin concerto, his seminal 2nd (1937); much more famous than his First and incredibly difficult. Not, that the brilliant First Concerto is a cakewalk. Both concertos show Bartok at his very best, the first inspired by genius and heart, the second, by genius and intellect.
I discovered the First Concerto by accident, and as an audiophile. I wanted a bog standard CD to test some speakers and grabbed a Midori/Berlin Phil/Mehta/Sony disc that I figured to be vanilla white with a champion violinist. I was dead wrong. The recording has remained in my test list for years, the usually predictable Mehta was anything but, the Berlin Phil play like demons and little Midori out demons the Philharmoniker. A fantastic CD all round.
After playing the heck out of the magnificent 2nd Concerto on the disc, I eventually got around to trying the First. I’d read a little about it — immature, early Bartok, etc. But, even on first hearing, the Concerto grabbed me emotionally much more than the 2nd. Written in two movements, the first is a love song, a rhapsody to honour his deep love for Geyer — it is absolutely gorgeous. He may have been naive in the ways of love, but not in stunning chromatic harmony. The second movement is the lad showing off. And, it’s a real show for both soloist and orchestra. How this incredible concerto gets slagged off as immature is beyond me. Listen at your peril.
So, you can imagine, I’m kind of hooked on Midori and Mehta. How does German virtuoso Isabelle Faust compare on this new harmonia mundi CD release? Rather well, it seems.
Faust is not as complete a technician as Midori nor does she have her penetrating sound, at least when comparing Bartok discs. What she does have is a beautiful sound captured by the most fantastic harmonia mundi recording. Under the bow of Faust, these concertos sound tough — she’s muscular and forthright, where Midori sounds effortless. Sometimes Faust’s grunt helps the interpretative cause. As such, I think any fan of bold and bright Bartok will love Faust’s way with his music.
In his day, the venerable conductor Zubin Mehta was a bit of a Jack the Lad, and we have a new version in Daniel Harding. I’m not sure Harding, much like Mehta (who was almost the second coming in the press during the ‘70s), has fulfilled his ‘Baby Rattle’ potential, but it’s still early days. Here, he helms his Swedish orchestra very well — they sound beautiful and rugged (much like Faust) and really whip up the excitement in the faster movements.
If a recording with the very best sound is what you’re after, Faust is fab. She plays very well, is deeply thoughtful in her interpretation (lots of spot on rubato), and has strong support from Harding and his radio orchestra. But, if you want what Bartok may have imagined with the lovely Geyer, you’ll want to try Midori before you press click on Amazon.
Harmonia Mundi HMC 902146
Playing time: 57:59
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