If I had to nominate a piece to glorify the violin as an instrument, I would choose Bela Bartok’s Violin Concerto No. 2 (Sz. 112) without hesitation. The first bars the soloist gets to play in the first movement constitute an unmistakable signature of Bartok’s work and at the same time a highly condensed statement of the composer’s origin, the Romantic era. Of course, all of the following bars point towards the evolution of Music, Bartok the pioneer, Bartok the innovator, Bartok the fusion artist takes over from Bartok the Traditionalist. I truly love this piece!
Bartok’s second violin concerto, and specifically the Andante, take me into Alice’s wonderland, a strange place, governed by rules yet to be discovered, with phenomena defying human experience, bizarre, but not hostile. The music advances a little like a sleepwalker and with it the audience: Step by step it heads towards a goal known only by the composer (and those who have studied the score!), at times it doubles back on its tracks, stops, takes a slightly different direction. An exploratory tour through tonal space, occasionally a look back at the point of departure, those very first bars. Magic!
The piece certainly is most imaginative and it’s genesis is a troubled one. It had been commissioned by his friend Zoltan Szekely, a Hungarian violinist and composer, in 1936. In 1937 Bartok made the first sketches; he finished it only in December 1938. From the outset Bartok had planned to use a major theme and multiple variations of it to create a really vast concerto. Szekely objected and insisted on a classical structure in three movements. Bartok wanted to conclude the piece on a symphonic coda, Szekely had his way with a conclusion giving the violin its due glory.
The fact that Bartok’s two major theme are never repeated in exactly the same way made Bartok jubilate: “I tricked you”, he told Szekely, “I have written my variations [despite your veto].” The composer and the Szekely met in Paris in 1939 to prepare the premiere, scheduled for the 23 March in Amsterdam with the Concertgebouw Orchestra. Bartok made some last corrections to the score; unfortunately he was unable to assist the premiere as he had to give a concerto back home in Budapest. The concerto has since the beginning been one of Bartok’s most popular pieces.
I would sincerely appreciate if you could be lured into this musical wonderland. Bartok is a seducing enigma, that just waits to be resolved, again and again. And the recording by Isabelle Faust and the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Daniel Harding is a real treat.
© Charles Thibo