September 09, 2010


Bartók: Violin Concertos Nos. 1 and 2. Arabella Steinbacher, violin; Orchestre de la Suisse Romande conducted by Marek Janowski. PentaTone. $19.99 (SACD)

Kreisler: Paganini Arrangements. Philippe Quint, violin; Dmitriy Cogan, piano. Naxos. $8.99.

     The two Bartók violin concertos are contrasts in just about every way except one: they are unmistakably redolent of the composer’s style. The first concerto, a two-movement work of largely Romantic sensibility that Bartók wrote for and dedicated to the Swiss violinist Stefi Geyer, who did not reciprocate the composer’s affection, is a highly personal piece with none of the folk-music focus that was to pervade Bartók’s later compositions. Written in 1907-08 but not performed in public until more than a decade after Bartók’s death, it offers music of sweetness and warmth that is nevertheless filled with dance rhythms and that required all the virtuosity that Geyer could command. Arabella Steinbacher throws herself into the music – not with abandon, since she is a very controlled performer, but with enthusiasm and a sense of emotional connection that together make this early Bartók work a treat to hear and a bittersweet experience to share. Steinbacher handles the very different Second Concerto – written 30 years later – with plenty of style, too. This is a complex work, written on commission for the violinist Zoltán Székely, who wanted a piece in traditional three-movement concerto form. Bartók gave him that but also gave him far more, since the work is essentially a series of variations from start to finish: the third movement comprises variations on material from the first, while the second consists of its own set of variations. This is late Bartók, with all the complexity and dissonance that he brought to bear in his music by this time in his career, and the work is not as immediately appealing on an emotional level as the First Concerto; it is more of an intellectual exercise. As such, it is a piece to which Steinbacher is fully equal, and one in which Marek Janowski and the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande provide clear and pointed backup that is as appropriate here as their sumptuousness is in the earlier concerto. These two works are very nearly bookends of Bartók’s compositional life, the first begun when he was 26 and the second finished just seven years before his death at age 64. Each concerto clearly reflects what techniques and influences the composer had absorbed by the time of its composition: the First is far more personal and considerably more in line with 19th-century norms, although its language is distinctly that of the 20th, while the Second is mature, deep and innovative. Steinbacher and Janowski deserve special praise for approaching these two very different concertos in distinctive but equally effective ways.

     The effectiveness of Philippe Quint and Dmitriy Cogan should not be doubted for a moment, either, but their Kreisler/Paganini collaboration gets only a (+++) rating – not because of their skill but because the music itself is less than enthralling. Fritz Kreisler’s revisions of Paganini’s works were designed to highlight Kreisler’s own distinctive style of violin virtuosity at the expense of many of Paganini’s innovations. Kreisler, for example, was fond of artificial harmonics, which he introduced into several of the pieces heard here. He was not fond of scordatura, which was a primary Paganini technique (most famously in his Violin Concerto No. 1), so Kreisler simply took it out when making these arrangements. There is plenty of virtuosity here – Moto perpetuo, in particular, is astonishingly well played, with Quint continuing at a breakneck pace no matter how often it seems that he cannot possibly keep it up. And there is some interesting treatment of the three more-extended works on the CD: Introduction and Variations on “Non più mesta” from Rossini’s “La Cenerentola,” Introduction and Variations on “Di tanti palpiti” from Rossini’s “Tancredi,” and – most of all – the simply titled but notoriously difficult Le streghe (“The Witches”). Still, most of the interest lies in what Paganini created, not in what Kreisler did to modify the earlier master’s work. This is even truer in the shorter pieces, which include three of the 24 Caprices, Op. 1 (Nos. 13, 20 and 24) and the “La Campanella” finale from Violin Concerto No. 2. Quint plays everything extremely well – he must be quite something to watch when doing works like these in concert – and Cogan backs him up admirably even though, in truth, he does not have much to do (Kreisler gave the piano accompanist only minimal chances to shine). It is certainly understandable that Kreisler, who performed mainly in the 20th century, would want to put his personal stamp on music created by one of the greatest violinists of the 19th. But that does not make the Kreisler arrangements particularly interesting from a musical standpoint. All Quint’s skill cannot conceal the fact that this is very thin gruel indeed.

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