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Béla BARTÓK (1881 - 1945)
Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta, Sz.106 (1936)(1) [33'04]
Divertimento for String Orchestra, Sz. 113 (1939)(2) [27'22]
Chamber Orchestra of Europe/Nikolaus Harnoncourt
Rec. Stefaniensaal, Graz, (1) 23-26 June 2001, (2) 23-25 June 2000
RCA RED SEAL 82876 59326 2 [60'26]

Recently, whilst at the FRMS Yorkshire Regional Group’s annual bash - its ‘Spring Musical Weekend’ - I had a cautionary experience. The story was related how, many years ago, the chairman of one of the societies was wanting to arrange a live concert. Having discovered that, not too far away, there was a promising young string quartet hungry for performance opportunities, off he went to offer them one. They suggested a programme starting with Haydn, ending with Beethoven and in between, ‘We’d like to do Bartók’s Fourth Quartet.’ Our chairman thought this might be a bit, or even a lot, too strong for his audience so, after a bit of discussion they compromised: the centrepiece of the programme would be Saint-Saëns. Some ‘compromise’!

However, that’s not my point, and neither is the fact that the quartet in question happened to be the fledgling Lindsays. No. What was so cautionary was the reaction of the audience listening to this story. A ripple of revulsion ran right round the room. I was also horrified. Not, I hasten to add, at the mention of Bartók, nor even at that ‘compromise’, but at the realisation that even today poor old Bartók can still visit panic attacks and palpitations on ordinary music-lovers! Somehow it seems so unfair when you consider some of the excrescences perpetrated in the name of music since Bartók’s day.

The music on the present CD is, as it happens, relatively ‘safe’ ground. At least, so I thought until I heard it, of which more anon. I first came across the Divertimento through a desire for the complete Miraculous Mandarin - why anyone would prefer the concert suite, which stops just as the music really gets going, is beyond my comprehension. Back in the late 1960s, choice was limited, so the Philips LP of the BBCSO under Dorati it had to be, and on the flip side there was the Divertimento, just waiting for me to discover, and fall in love with it. Many years later, with my first CD player sitting on the shelf, a CD of the Mandarin was desperately desired. There was only one available: Dorati again, this time with the Detroit SO. The ‘flip side’, so to speak, was the Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta, which conveniently supplanted my old Turnabout LP, a more or less execrable recording that was nevertheless considerably better than nothing.

The back of the jewel-case modestly mentions that this is the first recording of Bartók by Nikolaus Harnoncourt, relatively speaking still a ‘new kid on the block’ in BMG’s line-up. It begs the inevitable question, ‘So, can we take it that these are “authentic” performances?’ That’s a tricky one to answer. Consider: it doesn’t take a laser-like insight to realise that not only does the difference between current and past performing practices necessarily decrease as the date of composition approaches the present, but also Twentieth Century performing practices have the distinction of being well-documented on sound recordings. This implies on the one hand that Bartók would be easy meat for someone like Harnoncourt, but on the other that it may not be worth the bother. The CD booklet, probably wisely, makes no special point of it, yet it soon becomes clear that Harnoncourt is, as ever, mindful of ‘authenticity’, and rightly so.

Firstly, he went back to the ‘source’ to fix the size of his forces. Secondly, for the layout of the forces in the Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta he used Bartók’s original sketch, which was apparently reproduced wrongly in the published score. Thirdly, and perhaps most significantly, there is the style of playing, which gave rise to my ‘or so I thought’. Both these works hail from the late 1930s, prior to the composer’s forced exile in the USA, and they are contemporaneous with the Fifth and Sixth String Quartets, and the Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion. They thus contain nothing of the relative ‘romanticism’ of his last works, written when he was lost and alone, and far from his beloved home.

This last consideration mainly affects the Divertimento, which has long been made to sound as if it had been written on Uncle Sam’s side of the Pond. Although I’ve heard plenty of others that perpetuate the ‘myth’, my old Dorati recording - all snuggly-warm and cuddly - is a splendid example of this tradition. With Dorati holding the reins, the opening comes straight out of the ‘nostalgia’ stable. Harnoncourt is having none of that. He cracks the whip over the COE, setting the basses off at a jagged jog-trot straight out of the ‘String Quartets’ stable - and he doesn’t even bother to open the stable door! The music fair crackles with a rude, earthy robustness born of bows hacking at strings and vertiginous dynamic contrasts.

Everything is sharply-etched: even in the tender moments Harnoncourt homes in on the open-air astringency that lies within the notes. However, he is perhaps too consistent. Take for example the approach to the development section, that rare example of Bartók preparing a modulation. Dorati is magical: it is like sitting outdoors with your eyes closed, and feeling the sun emerge from behind a cloud. Harnoncourt, whilst observing the relaxation, fails to register the heartening glow that spreads gratifyingly through the sound.

This carries through into the slow movement, where Harnoncourt’s sound possesses a keen-edged slenderness bordering on the desolate, only here it is probably the more valid approach, bearing in mind just when the music was written. His sforzandi have startling impact, stark and maximally pungent, underlined by carefully considered, and telling use of that sine qua non of authenticists, ‘senza vib.’ Not that there’s anything wrong in that: we have plenty of recordings from the 1930s amply illustrating that vibrato was used as a particular expressive tool, rather than being slapped on all over like sun-tan cream. The long central crescendo is both slower and more menacing, utterly lacking any trace of the romantic warmth of such as Dorati. Nevertheless I have to admit that the latter, softer-grained as he is, controls the graduation with the surer hand, and is ultimately the more satisfying in this respect.

The finale has an abundance of vigorous attack and sonic clout. With the many stops and starts, it’s not an easy movement to bring off. Harnoncourt takes the music by the scruff of the neck, if anything accentuating the contrasts of tempo. He is by no means wilful, taking the fugue pretty slowly to avoid muddiness although, curiously enough, looking at the work as a whole it is Dorati’s concertino group that is the better differentiated. In the final analysis Harnoncourt’s tempo changes are less well-controlled than Dorati’s, but his far greater volatility and almost utter lack of civilised manners mean that he comes up trumps when it comes to gutsy vitality. Harnoncourt gives us a red-raw, full-blooded, ‘authentic’ Bartók.

The booklet note is by Lásló Somfai, the Director of the Budapest Bartók Archives, who provides a brief but informative background allied to a usefully perceptive commentary on the music. What’s more, unlike the German and French translations of the same note, as no translator is credited I am pleased to say that his command of English is very good indeed (of course, his writings may have been fettled, but then a ‘translator’ would surely have been mentioned). Particularly fascinating is the paragraph concerning Bartók’s seating layout, for the Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta, which Somfai relates to the semantics of the music.

As I mentioned earlier, Harnoncourt religiously observes this layout, and the dividends it pays are immediately obvious. Dorati’s Detroit recording (on Decca), like many others, approximates it, placing the piano and celesta in the centre, as though soloists, and arraying the strings around them, with the percussion deployed across the back. The composer’s layout places the piano in the ‘soloist’ slot, arranging the strings on either side in two completely separate, and completely symmetrical, bands. From front to back: first violins, second violins, violas, then cellos in the corners and double-basses on the inside. Celesta and harp are immediately behind the piano, with the percussion - in order of increasing oomph - lined up behind them. Thus, the timpani are right at the back, sandwiched between the two groups of double-basses.

If this sounds like a lot of fuss and palaver, you should hear the results! It’s rather more than a simple gain in linear clarity: we hear what Somfai described as ‘semantics’ at work. Bartók has gone much further than those who (dare I say?) merely dabbled in stereophony, whether it be through off-stage instruments, batteries of brass bands, or just opposition of first and second violins. He has, in effect, added an extra dimension to that branch of the pattern-maker’s art that we call ‘music’, and then exploited it thoroughly.

Eye-opening as this might be, the performance and recording have still to be good enough to justify any outlay. On balance, I’d say, ‘Get your hands in your pockets’. At 9'10 and 8'05 Harnoncourt’s first and third movements are very slow, compared with Dorati’s far from rushed 7'38 and 6'17. As it happens, the two conductors differ only by a few seconds in the fast movements. However, Harnoncourt’s control of those slow tempi is sure, as is his attention to detail. Coming off the first movement’s central climax, he makes much of the string glissandi, and when the music is very quiet, the comparative lack of vibrato brings an emaciated, fragile and spine-tingling eeriness to the sound.

In the third movement, every jelly-wobble of the pedal-timps is queasily present - if you suffer easily from sea-sickness, this bit is not recommended listening. The spooky alternation of up and down violin slides is under-cooked, but otherwise Harnoncourt has everything on the front burner. The textures are beautifully balanced, with all parts given their due. In particular the percussion and harp, who are often relegated to a ‘background’ rôle, find themselves contributing on much more equitable terms. I find that Harnoncourt’s scrupulous attention to fine detail suits Bartók’s musical microcosms to a ‘T’.

As in the Divertimento, the fast movements are fierce and volatile, but not simply in the sense of ‘hard driven’ - there are some beguiling relaxations. For instance, near the end of the second movement he winkles out a delicious little lilt, and in the finale he’s alive to all the different dance styles. The reappearance of the motto theme near the end is spine-tingling: the theme comes, from the ghost it was in the beginning, to all-too-solid flesh that melts, dribbles away, then blossoms anew in the coda.

The playing of the COE is exemplary. Mention is made in the booklet of Harnoncourt’s ‘coaching a Bartók style . . . to young [string players]’, and they certainly deliver the goods, right from scalpel-edge pianissimi through to full-throated throbbing, and they can attack sforzandi as though with hatchets, all with electrifying unanimity. Keyboards and ‘kitchen’, even the timpanist, deserve similar praise. I say ‘even’ because my stomach advises caution in this case!

Now, the bad news. These are ‘live’ recordings. I’d like to say ‘as confirmed by the audience shuffling heard between movements’. Unfortunately, you don’t have to wait that long to become aware of this - the audience seems to have been pretty determined to make its presence felt during the music, in spite of the recording engineers’ best efforts to minimise this intrusion through quite close miking. I don’t want to make too much of this, as it isn’t even remotely in the same league as the legendary (and in some cases terminal) Melodiya ‘Mucus in Moscow’ crowd. Still, if you’re hypersensitive to noises off, you have a right to the ‘health warning’. However, it says a lot for the skills of the recording engineers that the sound itself is so very good, when it could easily have been hopelessly hemmed in. Admittedly, it is a bit dry, but luckily for all concerned that happens to complement the style of performance.

There’s more, in the form of a ‘bonus’ CD. This is little more than a 28-minute ‘promo’ freebie, featuring what BMG hopes will be irresistible extracts from Harnoncourt’s recordings of Haydn’s Die Schöpfung, Mozart’s Requiem, and ‘A Workshop Concert’ about Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony. The bonus on the bonus is a complete performance of Vyšehrad from Smetana’s Ma Vlast. However, I don’t suppose that this will sway anyone one way or the other, although of course it does mean that you get a ‘free’ double jewel-case.

These are valuable and individual additions to the Bartók discography, offering fresh insights into two of the Hungarian master’s finest works, and worthy of a place on your shelf either in their own right, or as complements to more traditional views of the music.

Paul Serotsky


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