If you’ve been following our explorations of twentieth-century Western music, you already know a bit about Béla Bartók, one of the century’s most singular and prodigious talents. “Prodigious” because his career spanned the first half of the century, from the artistic ferment of the pre-World War I Austrian Empire to the artistic ferment of post-World War II America, and produced many important works; and “singular” because, although his music reflected most of the trends in musical thought of the time, it somehow never quite became mainstream in the same way that, say, that of Stravinsky or Ravel did.
When Bartók fled Hungary for the United States at the beginning of World War II, it could very well have marked the end of his career. The commission from the Koussevitsky Foundation in 1943 that resulted in the Concerto for Orchestra may have sparked a last burst of creativity. The Concerto itself is certainly a major work, a five movement showcase for all the elements of the orchestra. It is truly a late work by Bartók, incorporating elements of Western art music and Hungarian folk idioms in a synthesis that had become, at this point, one of the composer’s hallmarks. It’s a fairly intense work, with strong references to Hungarian folk music, especially that of Transylvania, comfortably at ease with the modes of so-called “art music.” Like Bartók himself, it is refreshingly free of -isms, which only makes it stronger.
Eugene Ormandy, himself born in Hungary, performed a number of Bartók’s works during his 44 years as music director of the Phladelphia Orchestra. This is his second recording of the Concerto for Orchestra, which he recorded three times altogether. I’m not sure that the Philadelphia Orchestra is the one I would pick for this piece — it’s a fine balancing act between Philadelphia’s richness of sound and the leanness of Bartók’s writing. I would probably opt for Cleveland in its heyday under George Szell. Ormandy does pull it off creditably, but I can, in my mind’s ear, hear the things I would do differently, had I a major orchestra at my command.
The permutations of musical material are pretty much a truism. Bartók’s Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion also saw performance as the Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra (premiered with the composer and his wife as soloists). In that version, it fits very well into the idea of the “modern” concerto as originated by Johannes Brahms in his Piano Concerto in D Minor, with the pianos treated as elements of the orchestra as much as featured solo instruments. The sonata version becomes a rather different creature, stark, distinctly modernist — a rather spiky essay in which even the lyrical passages have an edge to them, and the pianos become almost as much percussion as the percussion. This use of pianos as percussion shows up again and again in the twentieth century, most markedly in the music of Carl Orff. Bartók’s Sonata is not quite that extreme, but the feeling is there. The performances by the various Casadesuses and Drouet have captured the feel of this one perfectly.
The Improvisations on Hungarian Folk Songs may very well be the first time that Bartók used traditional material as the basis for original works rather than arranging it. Composed in 1920, the Improvisations mark a distinct break with his past work. They are brief — the longest is just over two minutes — and pungent, a fascinating exploration of the synthesis of traditional songs and high art in the twentieth century. Charles Rosen, an extraordinarily accomplished pianist, has a distinct and very evident sympathy for this material and and brings them to vivid life.
It’s no secret that I am very fond of the music of Bartók, and I’m particularly pleased to have a chance to revisit these recordings, which include some of his most revealing works. The arrangement on the disc is somewhat odd — sort of a trip backward through Bartók’s musical thought, but then, thanks to the marvels of modern technology, you can listen in any order you like.
(Sony BMG Music Entertainment, 2005)