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 Recording of the Week  Isabelle Faust performs Bartók Violin Concertos

Violinist Isabelle Faust's first recording, released back in 1997, was of Bartók Sonatas on Harmonia Mundi. A tremendous disc, it was widely acclaimed and won her the Gramophone Young Artist of the Year shortly afterwards. Since then she has established herself as one of the finest players of her generation, but only now has she decided to record the two Bartók Concertos, here accompanied by the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra under Daniel Harding.

Isabelle Faust
Isabelle Faust

The two Concertos date from radically different periods of the composer’s life and are separated by almost thirty years. The First Concerto was written in 1908 for the young violinist Stefi Geyer, with whom Bartók was in love at the time. However, she didn’t reciprocate and the composition ended up locked in a drawer and was not performed until after the composer’s death.

I don’t really think of Bartók as a ‘romantic’ composer but the slow first movement here, (marked Andante sostenuto) is full of pining and searching. Faust plays with a tenderness and sensitivity which, combined with her sweet and lyrical tone, make a compelling opening to this disc. The second movement, alternating between faster, more lively themes and more reflective passages, is more ‘typical’ of what you would associate with Bartók. The scoring is rich, and there is some wonderful cheeky interplay between the soloist and the winds of the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra, which comes off with real style and panache.

The Second Concerto (dating from 1938) is rightly the more famous work, and indeed has become one of the cornerstones of the violin repertoire. It was premiered in Amsterdam on 23rd March, 1939 by Zoltán Székely (to whom Bartók dedicated the work), accompanied by Willem Mengelberg and the Concertgebouw Orchestra. By coincidence I realise this actual performance is in the new Mengelberg Concertgebouw box we mentioned amongst last week’s new releases!

This concerto shows Bartók as a mature composer encompassing the various strands and styles which he had embraced through his life. There are still elements of romanticism, but equally striking is the rhythmic and astringent vitality, suggestions of folk music, as well as aspects of twelve-tone and other more contemporary techniques and styles. All cast within a traditional ‘classical’ three-movement structure it perhaps surprisingly comes together to form a powerful and impressive work.

Faust combines technical brilliance with a performance full of bite and character. Wide-ranging dynamics are not just well defined by loud and soft, but by distinct textural variety also, with for example the grit and guts of the last movement a million miles away from the hushed intensity of the middle movement.

There seems to be a natural affinity with Daniel Harding and his orchestra, who offer vivid accompaniment throughout and no shortage of incisive rawness of their own where required. The sound is well balanced throughout and it is generally very hard to find fault.

To coincide with this new recording we’ve put together a special offer across Isabelle Faust’s main catalogue of recordings, with discounts of up to 25% off (including this new recording). The new disc is released in two weeks' time (on the 29th July) but you can listen to samples, watch a fairly long video interview, and, if you like it (which I sincerely hope you do), pre-order it now via the links below.

Enjoy!

Bartók: Violin Concertos Nos. 1 & 2

Isabelle Faust (violin), Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra, Daniel Harding

Available Formats: CD, MP3, CD Quality FLAC, Hi-Res FLAC