This desirable disc displays three varied aspects of Bartók’s art: one work is for full orchestra, one
an unusually scored sonata and the final work a set of solo piano pieces.
Concerto for Orchestra
At the time of writing his Concerto
for Orchestra Bartók was in a bad shape physically, emotionally and
professionally. Distressed over his beloved Hungary’s capitulation to the
Nazis, he had emigrated to New York in 1940, leaving behind the royalties
and colleagues who had provided his financial and professional support.
He considered himself an exile in an alien land and ached to return home.
It was at this nadir of his life that two compatriots, violinist Josef
Szigeti and conductor Fritz Reiner, seized upon the ideal vehicle for Bartók’s
recovery, organising a commission for a major work for the Boston Symphony
Orchestra. When its conductor Serge Koussevitzky arrived at the hospital
with a substantial down-payment, the effect was astounding. Bartók immediately
rallied, left for a retreat in upstate New York and within seven weeks
had finished the piece, orchestrating the score that winter.
At the world premičre by the Boston
Symphony in December 1944, the Concerto for Orchestra was an immediate
success with critics and public alike. It drew attention to the other works
of the then neglected composer. Soon more commissions arrived and re-invigorated
he commenced work on his new projects. Sadly, his fragile health again failed
and he died the following September, leaving the Concerto for Orchestra as
In The Life and Music of Béla
Bartók (Oxford, 1953), biographer Halsey Stevens provided a cogent
analysis of the huge appeal of this work, “It combines diverse elements
from Bach fugues to Schoenberg atonality that had touched Bartók throughout
his creative years, while all the melodies, harmonies and rhythms are coloured
by the genuine ease of peasant music and unified by the power of Bartók's
personality. Indeed, while the Concerto’s elements are all-embracing, it
isn't a dry intellectual compendium of influences but a wondrous, vibrant
and spontaneous-sounding celebration of life, beginning with a primordial
coalescing of consciousness and culminating in an explosive outburst of
Music writer Peter Gutmann has
also provided some ‘Classical Notes’ on the Concerto For Orchestra on www.classicalnotes.net/classics/bartok.html which are
certainly worth investigating.
The Concerto for Orchestra is
also one of Bartók’s most deeply personal works. At the time of writing the
fourth movement, he heard a radio broadcast of Shostakovich’s Symphony
No. 7 which had become extremely popular, undoubtedly owing to its timely
depiction of the siege of Leningrad. Bartók became resentful of how his own
music, that he considered to be vastly superior, was allowed to languish.
As a result he composed an ‘interrupted intermezzo’ in which a vulgarised
version of one of Shostakovich’s trite militaristic themes barges in but
is quickly submerged by a Hungarian melody of simple, honest purity. The
composer was not to know that the Concerto for Orchestra would become
probably the most-performed 20th century work with a substantial number of
recordings available in the catalogues.
In a very fine performance the
Philadelphia under the eminent Hungarian-born Ormandy provides that required
air of mystery and foreboding, right from the opening bars. While they may
lack the power and dynamism of Solti and the LSO, or the searing romanticism
of Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic there is a encouraging integrity
about the reading. This is about sincere music-making without the flashy ‘hey
look at me’ approach that we can often detect. Ormandy and the Philadelphia
display rhythmic security and ardently characterful playing, ensuring that
this interpretation is one that many will be anxious to add to their collection.
From my collection my first choice
account is the 1990 digital recording from Mariss Jansons and the Oslo Philharmonic
(EMI Classics 5 75620 2). I also admire the versions from Fritz Reiner and
the Chicago Symphony Orchestra on a 1955 ‘Living Stereo’ recording (RCA 61504);
Antal Dorati and the London Symphony Orchestra on a 1962 ‘Living Presence’ recording
on Mercury (432 017) and Georg Solti and the London Symphony Orchestra from
1965 on a ‘Legendary Performances’ recording on Decca (467 686-2).
Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion
Conceived as early as 1923, Bartók
in 1937 embarked on plans to write a large-scale work for piano and percussion.
The result has become a classic of Hungarian modernism. He was fascinated
by the combination of piano and percussion and was convinced that his work
needed two pianos to balance the very sharp sounds of the percussion. Bartók
himself said of it: “... The seven percussion instruments - timpani(3),
bass drum, cymbals, gong, snare drum, tenor drum, xylophone - require only
two players, one of them at no time plays the xylophone, the other one never
the timpani. These two percussion parts are fully equal in rank to one of
the piano parts. The timbre of the percussion instruments has various roles:
in many cases it only colours the piano tone, in others it enhances the more
important accents; occasionally the percussion instruments introduce contrapuntal
motives against the piano parts, and the timpani and xylophone frequently
play themes even as solos”.
(Béla Bartók Essays, Faber - pp 417-418)
Bartók made an orchestration of
the score some years later, but it is the original chamber version that is
presented here. The work is considered to be a classic of Hungarian modernism
with extremely challenging piano parts. The dry and mysterious Sonata
for Two Pianos and Percussion is in three movements and the extended
opening movement is widely considered to be particularly impressive. The
complex synchronisation between percussion and pianos can prove the undoing
of many performers. In this excellent account the contrast between the power
and wildness of the pianos and the often delicate percussion is deftly established
by the husband and wife partnership of pianists Robert and Gaby Casadesus
and percussionists Jean-Claude Casadesus and Jean-Paul Drouet.
This version of the Sonata proves
desirable, however, I would not wish to be without a favourite version from
my collection by pianists Jean-Francois Heisser and Georges Pludermacher
with percussionists Guy-Joel Cipriani and Gerard Perotin from 1992 on Warner
Classics Apex 0927-49569-2.
Improvisations on Hungarian Peasant
Songs for solo piano
Bartók wrote the piano score of
these Improvisations in 1920 at the end of a period of creative hiatus
during which he re-evaluated many of his works. In fact, this piano set was
the only work he composed that year. This appears to be the first time that
Bartók used folk material as the basis for an original composition. Charles
Rosen performs the Piano Improvisations with a remarkable control
of keyboard colour and provides impressive insights into Bartók’s characterful
Each of the three scores were
recorded at separate locations in 1963. The respective recording engineers
have done a splendid job in providing clear and well-balanced sound quality.
The concise annotation is interesting and reasonably informative.
This is a desirable release that
will provide much pleasure. Recommended.