James Ehnes / Andrew Armstrong

Bartók: Sonatas & Rhapsodies, Vol. 1

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AllMusic Review by Blair Sanderson

James Ehnes begins his series on Chandos of Béla Bartók's works for violin and piano by juxtaposing the two Rhapsodies and the two numbered sonatas, allowing them to show their contrasting material and forms, and using this presentation to demonstrate the different but complementary directions the composer took in his music. On the one hand, the sonatas reflect Bartók's seriousness in working formally with the folk songs he had collected and incorporated it into his idiom, while on the other, the rhapsodies provided a lighter and more engaging showcase of regional melodies, for use as recital encores. Ehnes and his accompanist Andrew Armstrong are excellent guides to this body of work, which ranges from naïvely tuneful and colorful regional dance styles, to the most abstract explorations of sonority for its own sake. With the exception of the early Andante, which is a post-Romantic parlor piece with a wistful charm, the pieces show the modernist Bartók of the 1920s, and the development of his dry and resilient style is often in evidence. That Ehnes can play sweetly and smoothly is shown sufficiently in the Andante, but the writing in the later pieces is often full of caustic multistops and abrasive dissonances, and he often has to play with considerable grit and roughness to communicate the desired effects. Chandos' sound is clear and focused, with a good balance between the violin and piano, so both musicians are able to share the spotlight.

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