BARTÓK: Sonata for Violin & Piano #2. Rhapsody for Violin & Piano #1. SAYGUN: Suite, op. 3. Sonata, op. 20.
Tim Vogler (violin); Jascha Nemtsov (piano).
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Great Bartók, okay Saygun. This album brings together two friends, the Hungarian Béla Bartók and the Turkish Ahmed Adnan Saygun. Both engaged in serious folk-song research, at one point joining together for a collecting trip in Anatolia and environs, and their scholarly interests fed their creative work. Bartók has of course become a classic. Saygun has yet to catch on in Europe and points west, although small labels, notably CPO, have periodically issued recordings of his music.

Bartók's two violin sonatas come from his most experimental period, the early Twenties, where, influenced by Schoenberg and late Debussy, he pushes dissonance and tonality if not over the cliff, then very close to the edge. The folkloric element, however, comes through in the structure and in the abstraction of certain violin figurations in both parts. The sonata consists of two movements -- the slow-fast of much of Hungarian country music. The first movement rhapsodizes. The second dances. But the landscape in which these two movements operate is harsh and full of knives. The later rhapsody, also in two movements, is an altogether less knotty affair, emphasizing (like Liszt's rhapsodies) the urban gypsy strain in Hungarian music in the first movement and weaving city and country in the second. Bartók wrote both of his rhapsodies in 1928 as a kind of lollipop for recitals where he accompanied violinists and orchestrated them the same year. To some extent, they concede to the generally conservative taste of Budapest audiences, but to write them off as mere confections mistakes their considerable quality. They overflow with invention. One can find ingenious touches in practically every measure.

Having won a grant from the Turkish government in 1928, Saygun studied composition with Vincent d'Indy at Paris's Schola Cantorum. He begins in Impressionism but gradually comes under the influence of Bartók, once he realizes the similarities of their artistic goals: an art music rooted in native song and dance; folk music as a way to revivify and avoid the clichés of art music. The sonata of 1941 is stuck between Impressionism and Bartók. The long (even rambling) first movement shows traces of Debussy, Bloch, and Bartók, not all completely absorbed. The second-movement scherzo leans more heavily on Bartók's treatment of folk music, in works like Out of Doors or even the Rhapsody. My favorite movement, the beautiful slow third, essentially repeats, with slight variations, a single, folk-inspired melody. It's a huge risk in that a composer has very little scaffolding to hide behind. The allegro finale, which I take as a sonata-rondo, probably counts as the canniest, compositionally speaking. All the material comes from the opening measures -- essentially, a downward fanfare and a generating run of quick notes. Saygun isolates the separate components and elevates them into themes. For example, the quick notes slow down for the lyrical contrast and a third idea is essentially the fanfare shifted from off-the-beat to on.

By the 1956 Suite (why it has a lower opus number, I don't know), Saygun has fully come into his title of "the Turkish Bartók," although it's still the relatively easy Bartók. Essentially, Bartók comes off better, although Saygun has written well. The Suite even sounds Hungarian -- filtered through Bartókian sensibility, of course -- rather than Turkish, or at least what I think of as Turkish, more melodically rhapsodic and rhythmically more piquant. The music is spare, but it also gives off a whiff of the workmanlike. My favorite movement is the final "Kastamonian Dance," which repeats two strains over and over. It runs an even greater risk than the Sonata's slow movement, since the strains don't really constitute a full-fledged melody. Again, however, the risk pays off.

Tim Vogler and Jascha Nemtsov do what they can for the Saygun, but it really comes down to the composer. I've heard better works by Saygun than these, as good as they are. However, the duo tear up the Bartók. This is easily one of the best performances of the Second Sonata I've heard, along with Kremer and Smirnov and also Mutter and Orkis. At all costs, avoid Isaac Stern and Alexander Zakin, a befuddled account, as if neither knew what to make of the score. Meanwhile Vogler and Nemtsov sound as if they can't wait to bite into the next phrase. The reading moves with the inexorability of an express train. The duo also seem to have fun with the Rhapsody. They walk the fine line between exuberance and schmaltz without once stepping over. If only all gypsy fiddlers played like this!

S.G.S. (April 2009)