Classical Diaries: Bela Bartok

Hungarian Bela Bartok (1881-1945) is my favorite classical composer. He stood on the shoulders of past masters and created some of the best musical architecture of the twentieth century. Not part of any school, Bartok’s main constant was the Eastern European folk material that he often borrowed, sometimes playing it fairly straight (as in some solo piano pieces), other times orchestrating and expanding it to great heights. His harmonies run from parallel movement to bitonalism; his rhythms are often jauntily askew. Bartok’s best works bend the ear and stimulate the mind, and I find several passages emotionally stirring in an unmatched way.

A pianist by instrumental trade, Bartok wrote three magnificent piano concertos, along with many solo pieces, such as the Bagatelles, the short Allegro Barbaro, and the plentiful Mikrokosmos books. Remarkably, his string scoring stands out even more. The Second Violin Concerto stands as tall as the ones for piano, the string quartets are in a class of their own, and the solo violin sonata has some notoriety. The book of 44 duos for two violins also reveals his fascination for the instrument. Meanwhile, the two Sonatas for violin and piano combine both concerns.

In studying his music a few years ago, one of the books I consulted was The Music of Bela Bartok by Elliot Antokoletz, who analyzes several scores from a set theory standpoint. (Where intervallic cells, relationships, and symmetry take the place of standard tonal functionality.) Bartok himself once noted the potential need for a system that would go beyond the usual mechanics. A slightly less technical and more comprehensive book, well recommended, is Halsey Stevens’ Life and Music of Bela Bartok.

Some favorites:

Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta: A stunning four-part work in which cellular motifs from the opening fugue (slow and ominous) are developed through a sprightly second movement, a “night music” third movement (suspenseful enough to be included in Kubrick’s Shining), and a colorful final recapitulation. This is his masterpiece as far as I’m concerned. My preferred recording is by the Detroit Symphony Orchestra led by Dorati on the London label; I’ve heard a couple of other renditions that gloss over the more seductive passages.

Divertimento for Strings: A rich and unified three-part work. The first and third sections are somewhat lighthearted in their melodic bounce, although moments of suggestive weight sneak in. The central movement is much slower and darker, and it contains a tense rise and fall of strings underscored by looming bass motion - from somber repose to shrill anguish and back again. Pierre Boulez and his Chicago crew do great justice to this moment; I’ve heard other recordings that rush through the passage and lose the effect.

Concerto for Orchestra: Another masterpiece. There are several fine performances available, although I lean again to Boulez and the CSO on a great Deutsche Grammophon disc. Across five movements, Bartok explores individual sounds of the orchestra (such as the harmonized parade “Game of Pairs”) and develops a huge infrastructure at the same time. Probably his grandest work, and one of his friendliest, in places. The moto perpetuo strings in the final movement lend a lot of excitement.

Violin Concerto: Not so much a virtuoso feature as a conceptual one, the first and third movements share thematic material but treat it in different ways, while the central Andante is a set of variations unto itself. The violin stands out, of course, but I’m really more taken by the orchestral textures behind it, including the brass flowerings and usual rhythmic deftness.

Dance Suite: A vibrant tapestry lasting just over a quarter of an hour; one “dance” blends into the next, with a few themes being recalled. Here and elsewhere, Bartok’s rhythms often fall into additive metrical schemes (like 3+3+2 and so on) that are complex on paper but usually flow with folk-like ease. (Or sometimes not.) What I really like about the Dance Suite, though, is the way some of the melodies are harmonized.

The Six String Quartets: These were written over the course of his career, and they are equally demanding from first to last. The acclaimed Fourth redefines the form with economic motives, rhythmic severity, and symmetrical arch structure. I find it the most approachable, too, although I like the expansive Fifth as well, and each of the other four has plenty of challenges. Not just for the listener, who is thrust into a prickly netherworld on each go, but for the players, who run a gamut of technical hurdles, from pizzicato precision to microtones to metrical minefields.

Two Pictures (Deux Images): A two-part tone poem from the earlier years. The first half (“In full flower”) has little to do with Bartok’s typical musical tactics, but it succeeds as a sensual, post-Debussy sound painting. The second half (“Village Dance”) is sharper and more energetic.

Viola Concerto: Written toward the end of his life, Bartok didn’t quite complete this one, and the final orchestrations were done by Bartok’s student Tibor Serly. The Naxos CD contains the original Serly completion along with a slightly revised version by Peter Bartok, which I prefer. As with the Violin Concerto, Bartok writes wonderful things for the featured instrument, and I’m just as excited by the orchestral complements behind it. I’d like to think this rewarding piece might combat some of the viola jokes that have circulated for ages.

Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion: A brooding scheme for two pianos, complemented by a gaggle of percussives. Tympani and xylophone stand out in punctuating roles, not surprising since both instruments can be heard as sonic extensions of the piano.

Six Dances in Bulgarian Rhythm: These are the last six entries in Mikrokosmos, a lengthy series of short piano pieces that Bartok wrote as sort of a primer in learning the instrument; complexity increases as they go along. Some of the preceding Mikrokosmos pieces are outstanding as well, but the Six Dances are a perfect miniature gallery of Bartok’s keyboard prowess. Each develops affecting thematic ideas, some wistfully melodic, some rhythm-driven. My favorite is the very last one, in which a fast ostinato is oscillated in one hand against suspended, ambiguous chords in the other; there’s also a short canon-like chase and, in one spot, a funky (!) octave bass fill. All six are like Bartok in a Nutshell.

Other notes: Of the piano concertos, I like the second the best. The orchestrated Hungarian Sketches has some enchanting passages and remains a hidden favorite of mine. The dramatic music is a little iffy; both The Miraculous Mandarin and The Wooden Prince have plenty of great moments, yet they also have parts where it feels like the stage visuals are missing. I’m not an opera fan, so I’ve never spent much time with Duke Bluebeard’s Castle. The Four Orchestral Pieces diverge from Bartok’s main course but are worth a listen. Some of his earlier (and more traditional) works leave me less impressed, such as the Rhapsody for Piano and Orchestra, and the Suite No.1 for Orchestra.

Selected Discography

Miraculous Mandarin, Hungarian Sketches, Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta, Two Pictures, etc. Dorati/DSO, Mehta, Roge. London 2CD.

The Concertos (piano and violin), Concerto for Orchestra. Szeryng/Haitink/Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, Kovacevich/Davis/LSO, etc. Phillips 2CD.

The Six String Quartets Novak Quartet. Phillips 2CD.

String Quartets 1-6 Alban Berg Quartet. Warner Classics 2CD.

Divertimento, Dance Suite, etc. Boulez/CSO. Deutsche Grammophon.

Concerto for Orchestra, Four Orchestral Pieces. Boulez/CSO. DG.

The Wooden Prince, Cantata Profana. Boulez/CSO. DG.

Miraculous Mandarin, Divertimento, Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion. Dorati/BBC/LSO. Mercury.

Viola Concerto, Two Pictures. Xiao/Kovacs/Budapest Philmarmonic. Naxos.

Solo Violin Sonata, Duos. Pauk, Sawa. Naxos.

Mikrokosmos (selection), 15 Hungarian Peasant Songs, etc. Szokolay. Naxos.

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