After the more serious material of the first two volumes, James Ehnes finishes his survey of Bartók’s chamber music for violin on an entertaining note. Here’s the Hungarian master in unbuttoned mood, tapping into the rich folk traditions of his native lands alongside his move to America and his flirtation with jazz.
Contrasts was written for Benny Goodman and violinist Joseph Szigeti in 1938. It was one of the first pieces Bartók wrote in America. The music includes complex Bulgarian dance rhythms as well as recognising Goodman’s jazz heritage. The piece features top clarinetist, Michael Collins and pianist Andrew Armstrong. The charming Sonatina, based on Transylvanian folk themes, was originally composed for solo piano until 10 years later a student, Endre Gertler, brought Bartók a solo violin transcription. Bartók told Gertler that he’d wished he written it for fiddle in the first place.
For the Forty-Four Duos – bite-sized colourful slices of folk music from the Balkans – Ehnes is joined by Amy Schwartz Moretti. Few of these pieces last a minute, except for the lovely prelude and canon. Some tunes will be familiar in other settings but played by two duelling violins they make for a spicy and entertaining 48 minutes. It’s so easy to say someone’s the new this or the new that, but perhaps comparing Ehnes to Heifetz, as one American critic has, is not wide of the mark.