Imagine you’re in Budapest in the dead of winter, 1944.
Nazis are everywhere. All the indigenous Nazi types have been empowered to act as murderously as they wish. You’re probably in hiding, or at least trying to keep as low a profile as possible. Many of your friends may be dead, and you probably suspect the worst about everyone you haven’t heard from in awhile. You might be out of work, all alone and running out of food.
Such were the circumstances for many of the city’s residents who tuned in the evening of January 5 that year to catch the broadcast of the Szekesfovarosi (Metropolitan) Orchestra playing Bartok’s Violin Concerto No. 2 with soloist Péter Szervánszky.
Beyond its innately harrowing sound and a briliant performance by the violinist, this recently released archival recording – streaming at Spotify – is noteworthy for being both the concerto’s debut on the composer’s home turf….and also the only record that Szervánszky, highly acclaimed at the time, would ever appear on, posthumously at that. He would continue to perform for another half a dozen years before giving up his concert career and moving to Peru. He returned to Hungary late in life and died there in 1985.
It’s clear from the first few seconds of the recording that this is a digitized version of a worn mono original. Because raw materials were so hard to find under the Nazis, the orchestra took to recording the occasional concert on x-ray plates borrowed from city hospitals. Here, they’re far back in the mix, only reaching front and center when the soloist isn’t playing, and half the time that’s pretty muddy. What is clear is that conductor Janos Ferencsik is having success evincing a lush, dynamic sweep from the ensemble – when the music isn’t either receding, or distorting during one of many big swells.
Szervánszky throws off lively flourishes as its surprisingly warm, wistful opening theme gathers steam. He leaps and bounds, effortlessly, with the occasional gossamer trill, through the increasingly acidic phrasing that follows, the orchestra looming behind him. The first sudden, horrified pulse from the whole group comes as a real shock; the second, about five minutes later, is only slighly less harrowing in context. His microtonal approach as the music calms and he hits a cadenza is mesmerizing.
Wistfulness quickly gives way to a relentless wariness in the second movement. Szervánszky’s enigmatic chromatics and chords have a searing edge, contrasting with the lightness of his ornamentation. Shivery, perfectly balanced sixteenth notes over a stately, stalking pizzicato pulse from the rest of the strings provide a menacing contrast.
In the concluding movement, fragments of a country dance flit from Szervánszky’s fingers, then the music descends to an aching, portentous calm. A horror-stricken insistence follows. As with pretty much all of Bartok’s big showstoppers, ideas shift constantly, and so does Szervánszky’s attack, pristine in the calmer sections, raw and savage when the music grows more diabolical. Yet the coda takes a final, unexpected turn to a visceral sense of triumph.
It’s a wonder the Nazis allowed this to be staged, considering both the piece itself and Bartok’s well-known antifascist politics. What an inspiring performance by a group who under the circumstances may have been little more than a pickup orchestra – and how lucky we are to be able to hear this. May there be such artifacts from our time that future historians and listeners can hear and wonder how we managed to survive as well.