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Sandor VERESS (1917-1992)
String Trio (1954) [19:27]
Béla BARTÓK (1881-1945)
Piano Quintet in C Major, SZ.23 (1904) [42:05]
Alexander Lonquich (piano), Barnabás Kelemen, Vilde Frang (violins), Katalin Kokas (viola), Nicolas Altstaedt (cello)
rec. July 2017, Pfarrkirche, Lockenhaus, Austria (Veress), August 2019, Jar Kirke, Bćrum, Norway (Bartók)
ALPHA 458 [61:50]

I was only familiar with the Bartók piece, and that in an unimpressive performance by Jenő Jandó and the Kodály Quartet (Naxos 8.550886). The present recording has made me listen to the work anew. The playing is more committed and dramatic, and emphasises the various aspects of the music. Bartók wrote the Piano Quintet when he was only 23, following a short break from composing after he was discouraged from expressing his creativity during his studies at the Liszt Academy in Budapest. It was only after witnessing a performance of Also sprach Zarathustra that he was inspired to compose again.

The Piano Quintet, in the rich palette of Richard Strauss and mature Brahms, has little of Bartók’s later masterpieces. It begins with a sweep in the strings before the piano’s entry; there are a few glimpses into the future, especially in the more complex music of the third movement Adagio, but this is a triumph of late romanticism. Late Brahms is especially present in the more folk-inspired music of the second and forth movements, a riot of colour and hardly contained excitement. The performance, intense and exciting, highlights the many changes in dynamics and feel of the music, so this early work of Bartók has certainly gone up in my estimation.

The real find has been the 1954 String Trio by Sandor Veress. The music ‘out-Bartóks’ Bartók in how Veress inventively holds the listener’s attention. The Trio owes a debt not only to Bartók, but to Schoenberg and especially Berg; their twelve-tone system is blended with Hungarian folk rhythms and music. Veress uses the system to emphasise the strong rhythmically expressive and melodic qualities of the music. He once said about the use of serial technique in his music: “I start off with the melody, then eventually get to a note-row. The ‘serialists’ begin with the note-row and get … nowhere at all – certainly not as far as an actual melody!”

The Trio is in two movements. The brooding Andante leads to the much more animated Allegro molto with its passages of pizzicato and knocking on the body of the instrument. The second movement is more folk-inspired than the first. The experience is rewarding and intense, even if too brief. (I ordered the disc of Veress’s string quartets on Toccata Classics, TOCC0062, before the first movement of the Bartók was complete. I was not let down.)

Vilde Frang, Lawrence Power and Nicolas Altstaedt offer a superb interpretation, with an array of tonal colour one would not think possible from just three performers. The performances are all excellent, as is the sound quality. The booklet notes deserve special mention, especially the essay by Claudio Veress about his father’s String Trio. This great disc has opened my eyes to early Bartók, as well as to the music of a composer new to me. I cannot recommend it enough. Try it: you will not be disappointed. I know I was not!

Stuart Sillitoe

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