Over gently strumming harp chords, a solo violin sculpts a fervent melody that projects a bewitching mixture of anguish and tenderness. The emotional ambiguity of the opening passage to Bartók’s Second Violin Concerto sets the scene for a compelling dialogue between soloist and orchestra encapsulating an astonishing variety of moods.


The Concerto was written for the virtuoso Zoltán Székely, one of Bartók’s most distinguished recital partners and the dedicatee of his Second Rhapsody for Violin and Orchestra.

Székely had long campaigned for Bartók to write him such a work, but the composer steadfastly resisted the suggestion. Perhaps his reluctance had much to do with the painful experiences surrounding his First Violin Concerto. This work, written in 1907-08, remained unknown and unpublished during his lifetime – a product of an unfulfilled love affair with the violinist Stefi Geyer, who not only rejected the composer’s advances but also refused to play the Concerto.

Yet with the passage of time, these uncomfortable memories appear to have been sufficiently exorcised for Bartók to change his mind. In 1936 he announced to his publisher that he was thinking about writing a Violin Concerto and was eager to study recent concertos by Berg and Szymanowski to stimulate his creative imagination. It would take him another two years, however, to complete the score, his progress inhibited no doubt by the obligation to complete other compositions such as the Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion and Contrasts.

A further factor was the increasingly unstable political situation in Europe, which eventually forced Bartók to leave his native Hungary for the US in 1940 and seems to have taken a heavy toll on his morale. To what extent these uncertainties affected the musical character of the Concerto remains an open question. Suffice it to say that the volatile eruptions of aggression that punctuate each movement and the equally unexpected passages of mystery and inner reflection create a deep sense of unease.

On a more practical level, Bartók also had to contend with Székely’s very specific demands as to the kind of work he expected. There were disagreements, for example, about the way the work should end. Bartók initially composed a striking orchestral coda, but Székely rejected this idea, insisting it was essential for the soloist to drive the music to the work’s affirmative conclusion. In the end, Bartók honoured Székely’s wishes and composed a different ending that featured the soloist. But the published score also contains Bartók’s original thoughts, thereby leaving the decision as to which version should be used to the discretion of the performers.

A more fundamental bone of contention between the two men rested with the overall design of the Concerto. Bartók’s initial idea was to write a set of variations for violin and orchestra. But Székely was adamant that Bartók should compose a large-scale three-movement work following in the footsteps of the Beethoven or Brahms concertos. In the end, Bartók arrived at an ingenious solution that satisfied both parties.

A guide to the music of Bartók’s Second Violin Concerto

The Concerto was to be cast in three movements, but Bartók conceived the central slow movement as a set of variations and followed this with a Finale whose thematic material unfolds as a variation and transformation of all the ideas that appear in the first movement. Needless to say, the sheer inventiveness of Bartók’s music, coupled with its highly intense yet direct emotional language, transcends the technical intricacies and sophistication of this structure.

The Concerto was given its premiere in Amsterdam in March 1939 by Székely and the Concertgebouw Orchestra under Willem Mengelberg. Székely continued to champion it in several further concerts in the Netherlands before the German invasion forced him to go underground. Bartók unfortunately could not be present at the world premiere and only heard the Concerto for the first time at its second American performance given by Tossy Spivakovsky in New York in 1943. Thereafter, Yehudi Menuhin became the Concerto’s staunchest advocate, first performing the work in Minneapolis, then giving the English premiere with the BBC Symphony Orchestra under Adrian Boult.

British critics that were present at this 1944 performance remained divided as to the merits of Bartók’s Concerto. The anonymous reviewer in The Times was characteristically sniffy: ‘It must be the most violent violin concerto in existence and sounds like nothing so much as a man stopping a tank with a rapier.’ But others begged to differ.

Ernest Newman, normally a very conservative-minded writer, praised Bartók’s ‘lucid and organic musical thinking’. His verdict that ‘even at its most purely intellectual, the Concerto commands not merely respect but admiration from first bar to last’ is one that has been echoed by countless soloists and audiences ever since the 1940s.

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The best recordings of Bartók’s Second Violin Concerto

Christian Tetzlaff (violin)

Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra/Hannu Lintu

Ondine ODE 1317-2

Of all the great 20th-century violin concertos, Bartók’s Second has one of the richest recording legacies, stretching back to the very first performances. These include the world premiere by Székely and the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam in 1939, the second US performance, given in the presence of Bartók, by Tossy Spivakovsky and the Cleveland Orchestra in New York in 1943, and the first commercial recording from Yehudi Menuhin in 1946. Inevitably, the sound quality in all these performances calls for a good deal of tolerance, since many of the subtleties in Bartók’s orchestration are lost. Fortunately, Menuhin’s long-standing connection with this work, which he studied with the composer, is better represented in later recordings, especially the one he made in 1957 with the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra under Antál Dorati.

Since Menuhin, the benchmark has been set astonishingly high, with countless outstanding recordings of this work from a galaxy of stars including Stern, Gitlis, Perlman, Kyung Wha-Chung, Szeryng and Mullova. But the performance that really sets the pulse racing is among the most recent of these – from Christian Tetzlaff with Hannu Lintu conducting the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra. This is a live recording from 2017, which preserves all the adrenalin and excitement associated with a public performance but captured in extraordinarily vivid sound. Ondine’s engineers secure an ideal balance between soloist and orchestra, thereby allowing us to savour all the inner details in Bartók’s scoring that can so easily go by the board.

As one might expect, Tetzlaff plays the solo part magnificently, drawing a wide range of colours and emotions from the music but without sacrificing the work’s structural coherence. Lintu and the Finnish orchestra are incredibly responsive partners, reacting to all the nuances in Tetzlaff’s playing with vividly characterised sonorities, good examples being the brilliant flute and clarinet interjections in the opening solo, and the playful dialogues between woodwind, harp and percussion in the Allegro scherzando section of the central movement.

Given the hugely impressive contribution of the orchestra, it seems entirely fitting that Bartók’s original ending to the Finale is performed here, the whooping brass a momentary echo of the opening passage in his ballet The Miraculous Mandarin, bringing the work to an irresistibly exhilarating close.

Patricia Kopatchinskaja (violin)

Naïve V 5285

Drawing upon her vast experience of playing Eastern European folk music, Patricia Kopatchinskaja creates a very different sound palette from other violinists. Her tone can be powerfully hard-edged in one passage and then tenderly lyrical in the next. Recorded in 2012, this a febrile performance, full of fantasy and fluidity that holds you spellbound from first bar to last. Conductor Peter Eötvös shares Kopatchinskaja’s unique vision of the Concerto, inspiring the Frankfurt Radio Symphony to deliver some extraordinarily visceral orchestral playing.

Isabelle Faust (violin)

Harmonia Mundi HMC 902146

Isabelle Faust projects a leaner sound than Christian Tetzlaff’s, and is more understated than the mercurial Kopatschinkaja. Nonetheless, hers is an interpretation of great subtlety and sophistication that probes beneath the work’s virtuosic surface and encompasses a wealth of colour and wide variety of timbres. Daniel Harding reinforces his credentials as a superbly incisive concerto partner, though the playing of the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra on this 2013 recording isn’t quite as sharply etched as that of its Finnish colleagues on the Tetzlaff disc.

Barnabás Kelemen (violin)

Hungaraton HSACD 32509

Performing with the Hungarian National Philharmonic Orchestra under Zoltán Kocsis, Hungarian virtuoso Barnabás Kelemen has an idiomatic understanding of Bartók’s musical language and is particularly effective in projecting the Concerto’s violent mood swings. The 2010 recording places the violin rather close to the microphone but the orchestral lines still have sufficient textural clarity. A unique bonus is the opportunity to hear complete performances of both versions of the Finale.

And one to avoid…


The young Midori easily surmounts all the technical hurdles in this challenging piece. But by treating it as a vehicle for her immaculate virtuosity, her interpretation misses the music’s lurking sense of danger, and too many contrasts in mood seem smoothed out. The Berlin Philharmonic plays effectively enough, but there’s insufficient dramatic tension between soloist and conductor Zubin Mehta to make this a totally compelling account.


Erik LeviJournalist and Critic, BBC Music Magazine

Erik Levi is a journalist and critic for BBC Music Magazine and a visiting professor in music at Royal Holloway, University of London. He is a leading authority on the music of the 20th century, and has written books on the topic of music in the Nazi era, including 'Music in the Third Reich' (1994) and 'Music and the Nazis' (2010). He is also a regular broadcaster for BBC Radio 3 and is on the reviewing roster for International Piano Magazine.