One major recurring pleasure at the Seattle Chamber Music Society’s festivals over the last several years has been the inclusion of works by Béla Bartók, delivered with an electric verve that captures the pieces’ coiled folk rhythms and angular melodies with seductive concision.
These performances have often won wilder audience enthusiasm than anything else on the program — which is odd, given that Bartók (1881-1945) supposedly can be a difficult composer to appreciate.
Violinist James Ehnes, SCMS’ artistic director, is behind the programming push for Bartók at those recent festivals. He’ll also help bring Bartók’s orchestral genius to Benaroya Hall next week when he performs the Violin Concerto No. 2 with the Seattle Symphony. Dvorák’s “The Noonday Witch” and Mozart’s Symphony No. 38 in D major (“Prague”) round out the program.
Ehnes, 38, has a theory on why there’s a gap between Bartók’s daunting reputation and the invigorating appeal of his work — though he’s cautious about sharing it.
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“This is going to sound bad,” he said when in town for SCMS’s Winter Festival earlier this year, “but I think it’s an unavoidable fact that the music — a lot of the music — is very very very difficult. And a lot of the performances that you hear are just not good.”
The chromatic density of Bartók’s work, he explains, demands perfection in performance.
“If you’re listening to, say, a Bartók string quartet that isn’t played in tune, you’re sunk. If you hear a Haydn quartet that’s a little out of tune, it’s not a fun experience, but at least you know how it goes. … Whether it’s a lack of attention to detail or a lack of ability, I think bad performances of Bartók have created bad living traditions. … It’s been fun from an artistic director’s standpoint to present what I think is really great music and have some control over how it’s going to be played.”
Ehnes has been on a Bartók recording marathon of late, too. In 2011, his performance of Bartók’s two violin concertos and viola concerto with the BBC Philharmonic was released on the Chandos label. Two more CDs of Bartók’s chamber works followed, with one more to come.
Between his festival programming and his recording activity, Ehnes should be primed to deliver some top-notch Bartók with the Symphony next week.
Violin Concerto No. 2, completed in 1938, is one of the composer’s later works.
“It’s a very ambitious piece,” Ehnes says. “It has everything from very lush and romantic melodies to twelve-tone rows, and it’s virtuosic for every bit of the orchestra.”
Ehnes first learned it at 15 (“It’s a piece that is sort of in my fingers”) and his recording of it with the BBC Philharmonic is downright gorgeous — not just in performance but in sound quality. As it happens, this was the last recording made in the BBC’s Studio 7 in Manchester before it was torn down.
“Without exaggeration, hundreds of CDs have been recorded there,” Ehnes notes, “so they knew what they were doing in that space and were able to get a very beautiful sound.”
BBC conductor Gianandrea Noseda, he adds, is “an incredibly colorful musician, which this piece needs. … We really worked to try to make it a very vibrant and colorful recording.”
For those wondering if SCMS’ and the Symphony’s parallel programming of Bartók is coincidental or deliberate, Ehnes reveals that he and SSO director Ludovic Morlot have indeed discussed ways in which their programming choices can complement one another.
While Morlot won’t be on the podium next week (André de Ridder guest conducts), he and Ehnes are intent on finding ways for the Symphony and Chamber Society to work in tandem.
“I know things that he’s passionate about and he knows things that I’m passionate about,” Ehnes notes. “Playing this violin concerto with the Symphony is kind of tied into that.”
Michael Upchurch: firstname.lastname@example.org