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Béla BARTÓK (1881-1945)
Concerto for Orchestra, Sz.116a (1942-43, rev. 1945) [37.40]
Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion, Sz.110b (1937-38) [26.14]

Improvisations on Hungarian Peasant Songs for solo piano, Op. 20, Sz.74c (1920) [10.50]
Philadelphia Orchestra/Eugene Ormandya
Robert and Gaby Casadesus, pianosb
Jean-Claude Casadesus and Jean-Paul Drouet, percussionb
Charles Rosen, pianoc
rec. Town Hall, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA, 13 Oct 1963 (Concerto); Paris, France, Spring 1963 (Sonata); Columbia 30th Street Studio, New York City, USA, 12-16, 18, 23 Dec 1963 (Improvisations).
SONY CLASSICAL SK 94726 [74.49]

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 his testament. 

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 defiant vitality.” 

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 score. 

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.
 
Michael Cookson
 

 

 



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