In his Dance Suite (1923), Béla Bartók demonstrated his mastery of orchestral writing using original ideas; in his miraculous Music for Strings Percussion and Celeste (1937), he proved his ability to effectively handle more disparate forces. No wonder virtuosi of the day—(violinist Zoltan Székely: Violin Concerto No. 2, violist William Primrose: Viola Concerto, Op. Posthumous)—begged this Hungarian master to compose solo works for their use.
In this RCA Red Seal recording from 1990, Pinchas Zukerman takes on the formidable challenge of performing both works for unforgiving microphones over a five-day period. The result is a CD that belongs in any serious listener’s collection.
It’s clear from both works that Zukerman and Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra conductor, Leonard Slatkin, have similar views as to how these vividly-daunting compositions should be brought to life. Very seldom, but notably after the violin’s cadenza of the “Allegro non troppo,” do Slatkin and his marvellous players fail to keep up with the intrepid soloist.
Zukerman brings a warm velvety tone to the music that works beautifully (particularly in the middle movements of each where his effortless solo voice works its best free-form magic) except for the really large cries that the flow-blown sections demand. His technical prowess amazes throughout—whether the fiery ostinato scale/mode-passages or the dozens of near-violent double stops.
As a bonus, this recording also includes the alternative ending of the violin concerto’s finale.
The recording engineers have done a commendable job capturing the wide variety of instruments and colours ranging from strumming harps, to sliding trombones to a sensuous bed of hushed strings. Only more presence by the woodwinds could improve this impressive result.
Reflecting on the vast array of folk-melodies, development techniques and orchestration brilliance contained in these two later works, I recalled my surprise at hearing the quote of the opening notes of Mendelssohn’s “Italian” Symphony, which were used as thematic material for the violin concerto’s finale, and wondered if that was intentional, even as they morphed from sunny disposition to a much darker hue. We’ll never know—another delightful intrigue left to us by one of the twentith century’s most brilliant creators. JWR