Violinist James Ehnes Explores Bartók's Vibrant Folk Songs

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Decades before World Music became an established category, Béla Bartók was roaming the Eastern European countryside, collecting folk tunes with fellow composer Zoltan Kodaly. He snapped up songs from his native Hungary, but also toted his phonograph on tune-gathering trips to Romania, Slovakia and Turkey. He spent much of 1943 on a research fellowship at Columbia University transcribing Serbo-Croatian folk songs.

As violinist James Ehnes and pianist Andrew Armstrong demonstrate on this new recording, Bartók fashioned some vibrant and colorful arrangements from his folk journeys.

Ehnes has been a familiar face in New York lately; last summer, he performed on a New York Philharmonic broadcast from Van Cortlandt Park and also made a stop for a WQXR Café Concert. He’s been busy in the recording studio too; this wraps a three-part Bartók cycle.

The three sets of folk songs on this recording illustrate how Bartók embraced the tangy exotic modes and wild irregular rhythms of the countryside, which freed him from "the tyranny of major and minor scales," as he put it. Two sets of Hungarian Folks Songs features some jaunty dialogues with the piano and some added effects – pizzicato, harmonics – to make a splash. The Romanian Folk Dances ratchet up the momentum further, particularly in the final “Polka” and the rollicking “Fast Dance.”

The sonatas offer a striking contrast but there's much to admire here too. A Bach-like grandeur underscores the unaccompanied Sonata (1944), written in the in the final months of Bartók's life for Yehudi Menuhin, and yet more traces of Hungarian folk melodies turn up in the Violin Sonata in E minor, written a half-century earlier.

Bartók: Works for Violin and Piano, Vol. 2; Sonatas and Folk Dances
James Ehnes, violin; Andrew Armstrong, piano
Available at

Below: James Ehnes performs in the WQXR Cafe:


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