Bartok: Violin Concerto No. 2; Rhapsody for Violin No. 1; Rhapsody for Violin No. 2

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COMPOSERS: Bartok
LABELS: DG
WORKS: Violin Concerto No. 2; Rhapsody for Violin No. 1; Rhapsody for Violin No. 2
PERFORMER: Gil Shaham (violin); Chicago SO/Pierre Boulez
CATALOGUE NO: 459 639-2
No-one gets through the first movement of the Violin Concerto in anything like the 12 and a quarter minutes which Bartók specifies, neither does it ever really sound like an Allegro non troppo, more like a Moderato. But even within the prevailing interpretative tradition, Shaham and Boulez are laid-back in the extreme. The playing is extremely beautiful in all departments, and the ensemble is almost too perfect, so that there is no sense of risk, of living dangerously. The first entry of the soloist should say ‘Here I am’, but the most striking thing is the forward recording, rather than anything musical, with Shaham sounding as if he is a good ten feet nearer the listener than the first violins.

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And so it goes on. The second movement comes across more as an Adagio than an Andante, and though there are some excellent, well-balanced woodwind solos, Shaham dominates the recorded texture, so that passages which should be dialogues are monologues with distant commentary. In the finale, the technical prowess of the performance is in no doubt, but there is a musical flabbiness which is disengaging.

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Similarly, in each of the Rhapsodies, the slow first section, Lassù, should set up the tension for the following Friss, but this just doesn’t happen. Although the ingredients are all there, the chemistry between these two fine artists just hasn’t worked on this occasion. For a committed performance of the Violin Concerto, and a rare chance to hear Bartók’s original ending, turn to Viktoria Mullova, alertly accompanied by Esa-Pekka Salonen. Martin Cotton