In 1958 writing for the Encyclopédie de la Musique
Boulez somewhat reluctantly included Bartók as one of
his greatest five composers of the 20th Century. In his general
and brief essay accompanying this big set Wolfgang Stähr
writes only about Boulez’s views on Bartók and reminds
us that Boulez “viewed with unconcealed scepticism Bartók’s
use of folk music and that the composer’s last works went
into “incipient decline”. Boulez does admit to loving
Bartók’s aggressive outbursts” and the “vitality
of the music with its wild impetuousness” although he has
continued to believe that Bartók “appreciably limited
the range of his language”. Incidentally the booklet has
no information about any of the music itself.
In the light of that it might seem odd that Boulez has for a
decade or more now performed Bartók regularly and has
recorded all of the orchestral works gathered together here.
But he has … and now we can assess his work as a whole.
CD 1 begins with the little played Four Orchestral Pieces; perhaps
one of Bartók’s least known compositions. One might
think of a symphony here but apart from an early effort Bartók
steered clear of that form quite consciously. It was perhaps
Schoenberg who inspired the work and whose own ‘Five Orchestral
pieces’ pre-date Bartók’s by three years,
or more especially Alban Berg as in movement 1, the ‘Prelude’.
This is followed by a very dissonant and aggressive Scherzo,
then a gentler Intermezzo before an almost nihilistic funeral
march to end with. Here, perhaps, its Webern’s Op. 6 no.
4 Funeral March of 1909, in his ‘Five Orchestral Pieces’ which
was the inspiration. At any rate Boulez is very much at home
in these pieces and CD 1 makes an impressive start to the set.
The main focus of this first disc is the ‘Concerto for
Orchestra’ and if this for you the most important piece
in the collection then you will not be disappointed. Boulez gets
the very best out of the Chicago, Symphony. I would however have
preferred either Boulez or the recording engineers to have brought
out a little more string detail in quieter passages here and
there. It’s interesting that when Boulez is left alone,
as it were, without soloists, his inclination is towards fastish
tempi. Some of you might find the fourth movement a little quick
and matter-of-fact yet its length fits in with Bartók’s
suggestion in the score as do the other movements; Boulez is
just a fraction faster in places. Much to my surprise the version
by Frühbeck de Burgos which I’ve always liked (Collins
Classics 10912 - nla) is overall even faster. Nevertheless Boulez
does find space for a hint of sentimentality in the third movement
which makes a happy contrast.
CD 2 comprises several ‘Hungarian’ pieces: those
inspired by folk melodies - an aspect of Bartók Boulez
appears not to relate to. Kodaly, Bartók’s life-long
friend is not far away both in the way the tunes are treated
and in their harmonization.
The ‘Dance Suite’ could almost be thought of as a
dance-symphony being in five connected movements of contrasting
tempi. It was commissioned in 1923 along with longer works by
Kodály and Dohnányi. Bartók tells us the
sources of his dances. The first rather bizarre dance is Arab,
the second Hungarian and later there are some from Rumania. These
are melodies he had picked up on his pre-war travels, all mixed
together. The piece became his first major success and under
Boulez it works very well.
The Hungarian Sketches go well enough here. There are five of
them: orchestrations of piano pieces which had been written when
the composer was in his 20s. Paul Griffiths in his book on Bartók,
which I will refer to again, in ‘The Master Musician’ series
(Dent 1984) quotes a letter from Bartók to his mother: “… This
is the sort of thing that will be performed because the music
is pleasing, it is not very difficult to play and it is by a ‘known’ composer.”
The ‘Two Pictures’ form a typical Bartók triptych.
They play without a break. The first is translated here as ‘In
Full Flower’ which is often considered Bartók’s
most Debussian work, Paul Griffiths remarks “the handling
of the orchestra still owes at least as much to Strauss”.
Although the second picture is ‘Village Dance’ it
also has, in its Scherzo-with-two-trios format some Debussian
interludes and whole tone scale passages. Whole-tone scales,
like pentatonic and modal ones can be found also in the folk
music that Bartók was still in the midst of collecting.
Boulez has his own way with Debussy which he adopts here - that
is he allows every detail through but I feel tends to lack warmth
The disc ends with the three movement Divertimento, which confirms
for me the fact that Boulez just does not consistently ‘get’ this
aspect of Bartók with his lack of authentic ‘bite’.
The middle movement drags and loses its way; the third one is
generally too slow. I am still drawn to Jean-Jacques Kantorow
on BIS (CD 740) with the Tapiola Sinfonietta who really lets
rip, knocking four minutes off Boulez’s rendition.
CD 3 is full of concertos. In the Piano Concerto No 1 Boulez
with Krystian Zimermann emphasises the Stravinskian quality of
the forceful rhythmic opening and of the finale. They are appreciably
faster and rather stiffer in the middle movement than say Stephen
Bishop-Kovacevich with Sir Colin Davis in 1975 (Philips 426 660-2).
This does therefore rather remove some of the mystery. The piano
is also a little too forward. However the finale zips along and
is very exciting.
After the great worldwide success of the 1st Bartók tackled
a Second Concerto. It testifies to his firm belief that the piano
is basically a percussion instrument. Not only do the timpani
and bass drum play important roles throughout but the two cadenzas
are punctuated by them, and it’s important that the balancing
of the recording is carefully handled as happens here. The first
movement in fact is for wind and percussion and only at the start
of the second do the strings come in with a marvellously strange
homophonic passage in broad, wide fifths. There are though more
lyrical passages than in the 1st Concerto and Andsnes and Boulez
and the superb Berlin Phil, are alert to these, creating it seems
to me, an exuberantly unbeatable performance.
Bartók finished his last concerto just days before his
sudden death. He wrote it with his wife’s pianism in mind.
There are those who prefer the 3rd Concerto (contrary to the
Boulez view mentioned above) because of its emphasis, in the
first movement especially, on lyricism. The whole work is imbued
with a certain mellowness despite the wild ending to the third
movement. Hélène Grimaud and Boulez certainly have
the measure of this slightly enigmatic piece with a beautiful
and even nonchalant start. Everything is clearly articulated
and following with the score I heard things not noticed before.
It was a good idea and quite revealing for this disc to have
three different pianists and orchestras mostly at the very top
of their game.
CD 4. In the summer of 1940 Bartók and his wife settled
in Long Island. There he completed his more often heard ‘Sonata
for Two Pianos and Percussion’. Two years later he was
working on the orchestration of this ‘Concerto’ written
for Ditta and himself to perform. Many do not like the outcome;
I most certainly do. He added colour through doublings but rarely
inflated the textures. He adds a wondrous Celesta which he much
liked and various pedal notes which light up certain passages.
This territory is most definitely Boulez-proof, witness his own ‘Eclat/multiples’ of
1964/70 and even ‘Répons’. Thus he and his ‘dream
team’ of soloists work magically together especially in
the typically nocturnal middle movement. Wonderfully caught by
the Abbey Road engineers, it’s the best version imaginable.
The middle work on this CD is what we now call the 1st Violin
Concerto. Bartók simply called his second his Violin Concerto.
Why? Why was the First work not published for many years after
his death. It had been written for Stefi Geyer whom Bartók
probably loved but who eventually rejected him and his concerto.
It falls into two movements: slow-fast. The first is very romantic
and was re-used by the composer as the first of his Orchestral ‘Portraits’ Op
5. The second movement starts aggressively enough but regularly
moves around between fast tempi and a wondrously romantic and
dreamy idea which seems to be at odds. Much lies behind this
enigmatic work which I feel should be better known. Those of
you who know well the Second Concerto will recognize several
fingerprints. Gidon Kremer understands the work very well even
if Boulez seems unable to drag out of the Berlin Phil that much
It’s difficult I think to form a relationship with the
Viola Concerto. Bartók left it incomplete and Tibor Serly
tried to bring it to life although he only had a torso with the
viola line given throughout and little indication of the orchestration.
It’s an elegiac work whose form is somewhat odd: a long ‘moderato’ opening
movement, a slightly slower Adagio
and then a brief, rather
broken-up village dance Allegro vivace
. These latter movements
coming to less than two-thirds the length of the first. One rarely
hears the work but I think I can recall getting to know a Menuhin
recording in the early 1980s. Anyway this version with Yuri Bashmet
makes the most convincing case possible and Boulez seems happy
to let the work float along to Bashmet’s will.
CD 5 begins with the late Second Violin Concerto which is one
of those pieces which Boulez has castigated presumably because
of its modal/pentatonic material. Curiously Gil Shaham and Boulez
bring out the romantic aspects of the work beautifully especially
in the slow movement. Bartók writes a sonata-form 1st
movement and Finale which is itself something of a variation
of the 1st
. The second movement has a gorgeous theme,
almost in G major with six contrasting variations. Even Simon
Rattle and Kyung-Wha Chung (EMI 7 54211 2) do not linger over
the details anywhere near as much as Boulez. Although they are
not much faster in the outer movements in the middle movement
they are a minute faster. Both versions however are nowhere near
to Bartók’s unreasonable speeds suggested in the
score, timing the first movement four minutes faster than Boulez
and the middle movement even faster than Rattle.
The ‘Two Rhapsodies’ for violin and orchestra follow,
as they do for the Kyung-Wha Chung disc. These works have many
similarities and one hopes that Boulez enjoyed them. He seems
to have done as he and Shaham put them across enjoyably and with
a real sense of direction. They are each of almost equal length.
Each is of two movements: first a ‘Lassu’ and then
a ‘Friss’. Written, as they were, to make the composer
a little ‘more loot’ they bring together in a sort
of medley Hungarian gypsy and Rumanian peasant dances and melodies.
The first rhapsody even includes what is for Bartók a
rare outing for the cimbalom.
CD 6 offers only of a complete performance of the one act opera ‘Duke
Bluebeard’s Castle, with a text by Béla Balázs.
Jessye Norman makes a mature, strong-minded but passionate Judith
and László Olgár an imposing but sympathetic
Bluebeard. The recorded balance is excellent but quite static.
What I mean is that on stage the characters - yes there are only
two - move around. On this recording they do not. Yet as a piece
of theatre this is not successful anyway as Bartók’s
contemporaries realized in their reluctance to put the work on.
In a sense this is a drama of the mind and works much better
behind headphones. The plot concerns Judith, Bluebeard’s
latest conquest who on arrival at his castle wants to open the
doors and windows to let in the light. After some persuasion
the first five doors are opened and each reveals a bloody scene
which horrifies but fascinates her. The sixth door opens onto
a watery scene which she is told represents ‘the water
of tears’. He does not want the seventh door to be opened
but like all women she has her way and Bluebeard’s three
previous wives appear exquisitely attired. He assures her that
she, Judith will be his last love and fetches a cloak and crown
for her. The doors close one by one and after a few final words
Judith exits through the seventh door leaving Bluebeard alone
again and disconsolate so well represented in the orchestral
postlude. The booklet has no text and the performance is in Hungarian.
The track-listings do offer the opening line and its English
translation. My advice is to try to find the text in some publication
or on the net: it will help you to hold your concentration and
follow Bartók’s orchestral descriptive writing more
CD 7 - what a terrific piece the ‘Cantata Profana’.
Its difficulties cannot be underestimated which is why we hear
it so rarely. The work, which here has three track-listings,
plays without a break. It has a text by Bartók himself
telling a Rumanian folk-tale of a father who teaches his sons
to hunt. He then discovers them turned into stags almost shooting
them by accident but never ever having them home again. John
Aler fights heroically with the punishingly high tessitura of
the tenor part but John Tomlinson seems to be a little out of
sorts with too much vibrato in the head register. The chorus
is, for my taste anyway, a little too far back. Nevertheless,
although one rarely hears this work, this is a fine rendition.
It is sung in Hungarian which the chorus tackle with verve.
The ‘Wooden Prince’ was written with the intention
that it would form the second half of a double-bill with Bluebeard.
Its eventual success led to that dream being realized. Indeed ‘The
Wooden Prince’ was to prove one of Bartók’s
greatest moments. The story, which is divided into seven dance
scenes each generally preceded by a brief Interlude, concerns
the wooden Prince figure that a fairy tries to protect from love.
He is sometimes characterized by col legno
in the strings
and by a xylophone in the fourth dance. The Prince eventually
is able to love and embrace the princess at the very end but
he consequently forsakes the power and knowledge he has gained.
The score almost sounds as if it could be earlier than Bluebeard
and this may be because, as Paul Griffiths remarks (pages 71-73)
the music is modal and even diatonic. The long introduction before
the curtain, is a quiet and hushed C major triad pierced by an
occasional F#. It is also at times quite Impressionistic as in
the first Dance. The modality Griffiths mentions is created by
melodic inflexions influenced by Rumanian folk melody. Bartók
loved that country and the war, which he was not fit enough to
qualify, prevented him from visiting. Ironically if he had have
fought (thank goodness for posterity that he couldn’t)
for the Hungarians he would have been opposed to the Rumanians
who were on the opposing side.
Boulez and the Chicago orchestra are superb and it would be churlish
to criticize this evocative performance. I only wish, as the
libretti can easily be divided up a little more, that DG had
been more generous in tracking the work, say into fourteen portions.
This would have marked off the Interludes and postludes also.
CD 8 Since it emerged in 2005 I have thought very highly of Marin
Alsop’s version of ‘The Miraculous Mandarin’ which
Naxos calls a ballet (8.557433) but Deutsche Grammophon call
by its proper name, a ‘Pantomime in 1 Act’, Boulez
brings out its garish nature, Alsop is just a little more calm
especially in its final scenes but both are excellent as are
their orchestras. The Bournemouth Symphony has a stronger chorus.
Boulez’s is a little more recessed but the Chicago strings
have more power and lyrical warmth. Bartók finished the
work over six years before orchestrating it. Then after a few
performances in Cologne it was banned because of its story of
seduction and murder. Although seen elsewhere the following year
it was never done in Hungary until after Bartók died.
The score has sounds reminiscent of ‘The Rite of Spring’.
The wordless chorus whose brief appearance in section 11 is quite
magical was inspired, extraordinarily enough, by Delius’s ‘Mass
of Life’ which Bartók had recently heard and admired.
The disc ends as does the whole set with an undisputed masterwork:
the ‘Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta’.
It’s a four movement work in the pattern Slow-fast-slow-fast.
With a tightly constructed overall structure it is both mathematically
remarkable and musically natural. Its opening theme rises arch-like
over a group of seven notes. The construction is Schoenberg-like
and at times almost atonal. In other words Boulez is totally
in sympathy with this work as is his team. Actually the strings
are divided into two ‘choirs’ and the recording engineers
have divided them nicely across the stereo space. This is especially
noticeable in the Stravinskian second movement with its jagged
rhythms and dialogue between the groups. Altogether this is a
terrific performance and brings the set to a fine and up-beat
Like all box sets there are swings and roundabouts and some other
versions of certain works I shall not dispense with. That said,
Boulez is generally masterful in his over-arching understanding
of what Bartók actually wants and is able to bring out
the form and detail. He is not in full sympathy with every work
but that is hardly surprising. The recordings are, almost without
exception, top quality and the orchestral work and solo work
likewise. This is a good addition to your Bartók collection
and some performances will be difficult to improve on.
Four Orchestral Pieces
Sz51 Op. 12 (1912/Orch 1921) [22.45]; Concerto
Sz116 (1943) [37.05]
Chicago Symphony Orchestra
rec. Orchestra Hall, Chicago, November/December 1992
Sz77 (1923) [11.31]; Two Pictures
Op. 10 (1910) ; Hungarian Sketches
[10.51]; Divertimento for String Orchestra
Sz 113 (1939)
Chicago Symphony Orchestra
rec. Orchestra Hall, Chicago, December 1992 and December 1993
Piano Concerto No. 1 Sz83 (1926) [23.25] ;
Krystian Zimerman (piano) Chicago Symphony Orchestra
rec. Orchestra Hall, Chicago, November 2001
Piano Concerto No. 2 Sz95 (1932) [27.04]
Leif Ove Andsnes (piano) Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra
rec. Grosser Saal, February 2003
Piano Concerto No. 3 Sz119 (1945) [25.49]
Hélène Grimaud (piano) London Symphony Orchestra
rec. Jerwell Hall, London, October 2004
Concerto for Two Pianos, Percussion and Orchestra Sz115 (1942)
Tamara Stefanovich (piano 1); Pierre-Laurent Aimard (piano 2);
Nigel Thomas (percussion 1); Neil Percy (percussion 2)
London Symphony Orchestra
rec. May 2008, Abbey Rd Studios, London
Concerto for Violin and Orchestra No. 1 Sz36 Op.posth. [1907-8]
Gidon Kremer (violin) Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra
Concerto for Viola and Orchestra (op.posth.)  (22.23]
Yuri Bashmet (viola) Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra
rec. March 2004, Grosser Saal-Berlin
Violin Concerto No. 2 Sz112 (1938) [42.27]; Rhapsody No. 1 for
Violin and Orchestra Sz87 (1928) [11.12]; Rhapsody No. 2 for
Violin and Orchestra Sz90 (1928) [11.37]
Gil Shaham (violin) Chicago Symphony Orchestra
rec. December 1998, Orchestra Hall, Chicago,
Duke Bluebeard’s Castle
- Opera in One Act Sz48
Op. 11 (1911) [58.00]
Jessye Norman (Judith); László Polgár (Duke
Bluebeard); Nicholas Simon (Prologue)
Chicago Symphony Orchestra
rec. Orchestra Hall. Chicago, December 1993
Sz94 (1932) [18.07]; The Wooden Prince
Ballet Pantomime in One Act Sz60 Op. 13 (1914-17) [54.59]
Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus
rec. Orchestra Hall, Chicago, December 1991
The Miraculous Mandarin
Op. 19 Sz73 (1917-8/1926 [31.41]
Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus
rec. Orchestra Hall, Chicago, December 1994
Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta
Chicago Symphony Orchestra
rec. Orchestra Hall, Chicago, December 1994