Béla BARTÓK (1881-1945)
Contrasts for violin, clarinet and piano, Sz111 (1938) [16:57]
Rhapsody No.1 for violin and piano Sz.86 (1928) [9:13]
Mikrokosmos Sz.107 (1926-39) - excerpts [45:24]
Josef Szigeti (violin)
Benny Goodman (clarinet)
Béla Bartók (piano)
rec. May 1940, NYC
NAXOS HISTORICAL 8.111343 [71:35]

What could be more alluring than the stark dynamism of Bartók’s piano playing, the warm timbral shading of Benny Goodman’s clarinet and the astringent aristocracy of Josef Szigeti’s violin? Of course it means the composer’s Contrasts in this famed old 1940 recording, restored once more under the Bartók plays Bartók rubric of the Naxos Historical series. If anything is self-evidently definitive in the context of the composer’s own contribution then this is surely it, and the fact that all three of the works here comprise Bartók’s complete commercial American discography adds a further gloss on the matter.

Contrasts was commissioned by Goodman. We can admire his puckish curlicues at the end of the Verbunkos recruiting dance and reflect on the fact that he would have sounded rather different had he studied earlier with Reginald Kell; not better, necessarily, but different. Szigeti’s provocative abrasions act as fruitful soil-drenched Hungarian astringencies. The nocturnal fireflies of the central movement are faithfully captured. No less so is the pungent chordal support supplied by the composer in the Sebes, that fast dance finale, in which Szigeti’s intense flourishes elaborate on the opening Saint-Saëns-derived Danse Macabre figures. It ends a must-have collaboration.

The Rhapsody was written in 1928 and was a suitable vehicle for Szigeti’s biting and wholly magnificent fiddling. He was not yet afflicted with the tremulous bow arm and inevitable co-ordination problems that were to appear later in the 1940s. Here his terse tonal reserves are entirely appropriate. That said, his playing is even more energised and committed in the live Library of Congress recital that he gave with the composer and which has been preserved; the studio recording sounds that much less uninhibited, so to sample the really real deal you should consult transfers such as those on Vanguard OVC8008 or Hungaroton HCD 12330. The final item is a selection from Mikrokosmos played by the composer over four days in April and May 1940. He plays 32 pieces in all, and they were grouped by matrix into threes - mainly. He recorded two sets of four, one of two and No.144, the ‘Minor Seconds, Major Sevenths’ was housed on a separate matrix of its own given that it lasts over four minutes. These are wonderful artefacts, compressed gems of pianism and touch. No.120 the ‘Fifth Chords’ is especially volatile and vibrant; No.151, the ‘Dances in Bulgarian Rhythm’ comes close to a 52nd Street dive, and the most elusive is that long 144.

The transfers are first class. For my own tastes in the Rhapsody, I’m not wholly averse to Lewis C Wiener’s brighter, more open sound on Biddulph LAB070-71. But this all-round conspectus stands at a tangent because it’s predicated on the totality of Bartók’s New York recordings.

Jonathan Woolf

see also review by Dominy Clements