Faust and Harding Excel In Bartók

Review by: David Hurwitz


Artistic Quality: 10

Sound Quality: 10

Bartók’s music seems to be less popular than it was a few decades ago; at least it has been a while since major new recordings of these iconic works have seen a new release. That wait has been worth it. Bartók’s First violin concerto never will enjoy the popularity of the second, not just because it sat unperformed until after his death, but because its thematic material suffers from what might charitably be called “chromatic drift”. In other words, it can sound pretty ugly, at least until you get to know it well. Happily, Isabelle Faust really knows her Bartók, as her very sympathetic and intelligent booklet notes demonstrate. She plays the dreamy opening movement with a pure tone and sure sense of direction, while the second movement exudes just the right kind of purposeful energy, even in the music’s most gnarly passages.

The epic Second concerto is even better. This is surely one of the great recordings of the piece. The long first movement flies by without a single dead spot, despite (or because of) huge contrasts in tempo between sections. Bartók’s suggested timing for this movement—12 minutes—never has been followed slavishly, and Faust’s 15 minutes exactly match the reference recording of Zehetmair/Fischer, as do the remaining movements for that matter. Perhaps the most telling evidence of Faust’s mastery occurs around measure 304, the passage in quarter-tones that leads into the big cadenza. Her purity of intonation makes sense of a moment that often sounds queasily out of tune, while the cadenza itself emerges naturally from what has come before, and leads inevitably to the orchestra’s return.

The central slow movement is again impressively cogent, its scherzando section deftly integrated, and the finale is really exciting. Faust and conductor Daniel Harding opt for the work’s original (and superior) ending, without the solo violin in the final bars, giving Harding and the excellent Swedish Radio Symphony a moment to shine. Apropos Harding, I have to say that this strikes me as some of his best work on disc: precise, attentive to matters of color and texture, considerate of his soloist but also nicely detailed. He’s very much an equal partner in these proceedings, and just as fine a one. Harmonia Mundi provides ideally balanced sonics that flatter Faust’s sweet tone without sticking a microphone inside the instrument. This is a wonderful recording in every respect.

Buy Now from Arkiv Music

Recording Details:

Reference Recording: Zehetmair/Fischer (Berlin Classics)

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