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CD: Crotchet

Boulez conducts Bartók
Béla BARTÓK (1881-1945)
Chicago Symphony Orchestra; Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra/Pierre Boulez
rec. 1991-2008, Chicago, Berlin
Full tracklisting at end of review
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 477 8125 [8 CDs: 9:05:10] 

Experience Classicsonline

In 1958 writing for the Encyclopédie de la Musique Pierre 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 and suavity.

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 interest.

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 clearly.

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 finish.

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.

Gary Higginson 

Track details
CD 1 [59.59]
Four Orchestral Pieces Sz51 Op. 12 (1912/Orch 1921) [22.45]; Concerto for Orchestra Sz116 (1943) [37.05]
Chicago Symphony Orchestra
rec. Orchestra Hall, Chicago, November/December 1992
CD 2 [72.29]
Dance Suite Sz77 (1923) [11.31]; Two Pictures Sz46 Op. 10 (1910) [1928]; Hungarian Sketches Sz97 (1908-11/1931) [10.51]; Divertimento for String Orchestra Sz 113 (1939) [26.12]
Chicago Symphony Orchestra
rec. Orchestra Hall, Chicago, December 1992 and December 1993
CD 3 [76.26]
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
CD 4 [70.36]
Concerto for Two Pianos, Percussion and Orchestra Sz115 (1942) [25.33]
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] [21.20]
Gidon Kremer (violin) Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra
Concerto for Viola and Orchestra (op.posth.) [1945] (22.23]
Yuri Bashmet (viola) Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra
rec. March 2004, Grosser Saal-Berlin
CD 5 [63.29]
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,
CD 6 [58.00]
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
CD 7 [73.16]
Cantata Profana 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
CD 8 [62.17]
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 Sz106 (1936) [30.24]
Chicago Symphony Orchestra
rec. Orchestra Hall, Chicago, December 1994



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