Sunday, June 26, 2011

Bela Bartok - Concerto For Violin, Stern, NPO, Bernstein (Columbia - ML5283)

Bela Bartok is a Hungarian composer with quite an affect on the 20th century composers. He has injected folk music into classical and opened whole new worlds for the later coming composers. Now composers are getting help from whichever folk form they can get their hands on with probably Balinese music having the most interest.

There is no date on the record, but after seeing the "nonbreakable" sign on the label, I've got a question mark. In the many seller's info pages, it is said to be from the 70s, but these nonbreakable records were already gone by mid 60s, so I've started a small search and found that the date is 1958. The record is in an incredible shape concerning it's age. Not a single flaw whatsoever.

It is always a dilemma of arranging the microphones when recording a piece. It is not an easy task to find the right balance between the orchestra and the soloist. In this case, the dilemma lies between Isaac Stern as the violinist and New York Philharmonic Orchestra under Leonard Bernstein's leadership. I've listened to Rudolf Serkin's version of Beethoven's Five Piano Concertos and there the problem was the soloist was not easily distinguishable. Here, the issue is exactly the opposite. The soloist is unquestionably in front, even at times shadowing the NPO.

Bartok's second violin concerto is made up of three movements. It was originally commissioned by Hungarian violinist Zoltan Szekely in 1937. Bartok replied back with an idea to write it in variation form, but due to Szekely's insistance, the concerto came to fruition in 1938 with one single flaw for Szekely. The second movement is in itself a variation and the third movement is a variation of the first. This was not the first time Bartok did this, but in this concerto, he probably created the variational masterpiece since he never wrote another variation afterwards. The premiere of the concerto was in Amsterdam in 1939.

Stern's performance is extremely energetic and on the spot. With the folklorish attitude of the music, the end result is in need of effort and speed while Stern delivers them both. It is a little harder to comment on the NPO's and Bernstein's performance since they are left somehow in the background, but generally the accompanying melodies are well formed.

All in all, this is an extremely well developed concerto from the maturity days of Bartok. When you listen to it, it withholds all the aspects of Bartok's personal style. Please also note that on the web, this piece is mixed with Bartok's first violin concerto. Bartok wrote the first concerto in 1908 and it consists of only two movements with an aim to write the third later on. He never wrote it. That concerto surfaced in 1958 and that is why misunderstandings occur.

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