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Hyperion Records

CDA67687 - Bartók & Rózsa: Viola Concertos
Fall, 1981 by Tamas Galambos (b1939)
Private Collection / Bridgeman Art Library, London

Recording details: August 2009
Grieghallen, Bergen, Norway
Produced by Andrew Keener
Engineered by Simon Eadon & Gunnar Herleif Nilsen
Release date: October 2010
Total duration: 62 minutes 44 seconds

'[Rózsa] Everything comes across with maximum impact—Power's agility at speed, his warm 'walnut' tone, and the innate musicality of his phrasing. Andrew Litton is in total command of every aspect of the score, inspiring his Bergen players to a performance that's dramatic, incisive and atmospheric. The Bartók concerto is presented in Serly's familiar completion and again, there's an urgency about the playing that is offset by a profoundly poetic response to the work's many lyrical episodes, especially the central Adagio religioso. Litton has a keen ear for detail and Andrew Keener's engineering team supports him with sound that is both transparent and full-bodied' (Gramophone)

'Listening to Lawrence Power's committed performance of both works leaves one grappling for reasons for the comparative neglect of the Rózsa … Power delivers a highly charged account of the solo part maximising emotional contrasts in the music to an even greater extent than the impressive Gilad Karni on a rival Naxos disc. The Bartók is equally compelling' (BBC Music Magazine)

'Power’s supreme artistry fuels performances of works by composers who are linked. Serly, who edited Bartók’s Viola Concerto, is given the limelight in his Rhapsody, and the spicy concerto by Rózsa makes for a pungent coupling. All are energised by the orchestra’s vigour' (The Daily Telegraph)

'Power is a much more full-toned soloist in the Bartók concerto than some of his predecessors … his tonal control is magnificent, wide-ranging with not a trace of throatiness even at the top of the range, and his technical command is the next best thing to flawless … it seems unlikely that the solo line here has ever been quite this beautifully shaped. The Bergen Philharmonic under Andrew Litton … acquits itself admirably, with finely shaped solo lines, blended sectional playing and ample bite in the tuttis where required' (International Record Review)

'The viola soars into wide-ranging beauty in Lawrence Power's expert hands … Power really makes his viola throb in Bartók's dark-hued unfinished concerto' (The Times)

'Here's a wonderfully imaginative piece of record programming … [Rózsa] This piece derseves to become the viola player's answer to the Korngold Violin Concerto. The superb accounts of the Bartók concerto and Serly's short yet compelling Rhapsody only enhance this set's desirability' (The Sunday Times)

'Lawrence Power plays all three pieces with big-toned, fibre-rich advocacy' (The Irish Times)

Bartók & Rózsa: Viola Concertos
Moderato assai  [13'26]
Allegro giocoso  [5'07]
Adagio  [6'17]
Moderato  [13'05]
Adagio religioso  [4'04]
Allegro vivace  [4'17]

The British viola player Lawrence Power continues to be acclaimed as one of the greatest performers of today. Together with Hyperion he is recording all of the seminal twentieth-century works for the viola.

Of the three Hungarian works for viola and orchestra on this latest release, the best-known is Bartók’s viola concerto, completed after the composer’s death by Tibor Serly. Serly was Bartók’s most constant and trusted Hungarian musician-friend in his last years in the USA. William Primrose (who edited the viola part himself) was able to premiere Serly’s recension of the music on 2 December 1949, with the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra conducted by Antal Dorati. Almost immediately it was recognized as one of the major contributions to the small literature of concertos for the viola, and has been a cornerstone of the instrument’s repertoire ever since.

Serly’s own Rhapsody for Viola and Orchestra dwells somewhat within Bartók’s shadow, but is nevertheless a skilful and elaborate work with a rollocking finale. The disc is completed by a modern viola concerto by the film composer Miklós Rózsa. The overall impression of the work is individual, darkly Romantic, and authentically Hungarian in inspiration.

Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
After the major success of his Concerto for Orchestra, premiered in Boston in December 1944, Béla Bartók—who for the past few years had been comparatively neglected in his American exile—began to be showered with commissions for new works, only some of which he was able to fulfil in the ten months that were left to him. One of these was from the leading viola player William Primrose, who had been enormously impressed by a performance of Bartók’s Second Violin Concerto given by Yehudi Menuhin. Some time in late December or early January 1945 (the precise date is uncertain) Primrose suggested to Bartók that he would like to commission a viola concerto from him, and by mid-January the had composer agreed. To what extent he worked on the piece in the first half of 1945 is unclear, as both Bartók and his wife were ill a lot of the time; and in a letter to Primrose drafted on 5 August Bartók said that he had almost despaired of finding ideas until they managed to get a summer break at their house in Saranac Lake. In mid July, however, he had started drafting a concerto with four movements, ‘Each movement … preceded by a (short) recurring introduction (mostly solo of the viola), a kind of ritornello’. This letter, however, was not sent; instead on 8 September Bartók wrote to Primrose to tell him the concerto was ‘ready in draft’ and that he could make a full orchestral score ‘in 5–6 weeks’. Instead, less than a fortnight later Bartók fell gravely ill, and died in the West Side Hospital, New York, on 26 September.

While composing the Viola Concerto Bartók had also been writing—and it seems giving more sustained effort to—his Third Piano Concerto, which he intended as a birthday present for his wife, the pianist Ditta Pásztory, so that she should have something to play in the event of his death. While the Piano Concerto was complete in full score apart for the closing bars, the Viola Concerto remained in the form of some sketches and a more or less continuous short-score draft, with only a few indications of orchestration, written on four foldings of manuscript paper (sixteen pages in all, though two of them are blank; none of them is numbered). The harmony was often reduced to a private shorthand, vaguely indicating harmonic or melodic ornaments, and rather than erase passages that he had corrected, Bartók had written the new versions in the margins or wherever there happened to be space. As Bartók’s son Peter wrote in 1994, there were a few compositional gaps and even the sequence of the material was at first unclear: ‘Much of the essential data were only in [my father’s] mind; he must have planned to decide many details or make some modifications only when actually transferring the composition onto the final score paper.’

Ditta and Peter Bartók gave the materials of both concertos to Tibor Serly, who had been Bartók’s most constant and trusted Hungarian musician-friend in his last years in the USA, ‘to look over these manuscripts carefully’. While he had comparatively little to do to complete the Third Piano Concerto (which was premiered by György Sándor and the Philadelphia Orchestra in February 1946), the elaboration of a performing version of the Viola Concerto was a much more complex undertaking. Primrose (who edited the viola part himself) was able to premiere Serly’s recension of the music only on 2 December 1949, with the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra conducted by Antal Dorati. Almost immediately it was recognized as one of the major contributions to the small literature of concertos for the viola, and has been a cornerstone of the instrument’s repertoire ever since. There have been various cavils about Serly’s interpretation of Bartók’s intentions: in 1992 the violist Csaba Erdélyi premiered a new version of his own, while in 1995 Peter Bartók, with the musicologist Paul Neubauer, published a revised edition of the concerto which differs from Serly’s in some important respects. In general, though, it is Serly’s version that continues to hold sway in the concert hall.

Serly had talked to Bartók about the concerto in the composer’s New York apartment just before he went into hospital in September 1945. By that time Bartók had abandoned the four-movement design that he had described to Primrose the previous month, suppressing his ideas for a scherzo, to arrive at the three-movement form, with the slow movement joined on to the finale, that we know today. Though Bartók had utilized the entire range of the viola, he had particularly exploited the low and middle registers which give the concerto a distinctively dark colouring. In his last letter to Primrose he had spoken of the ‘highly virtuoso’ aspect of the solo writing, and said the ‘sombre more masculine character’ of the instrument ‘partly influenced the general character of the work’. The soloist is almost continually in the foreground, and a character of eloquent soliloquy—Bartók speaking directly out of his troubled years of exile, perhaps—informs much of the first two movements.

The first movement, whose principal key is C (Bartók at this stage in his career tends to write in a mixed mode, combining elements of major and minor), is much the largest of the three and is in a clear sonata form, started off by the solo viola with a cadenza-like introduction that anticipates the first subject. This is a lyrical yet rather stern theme that leaves us in no doubt of the seriousness of the work. A restless, agitated transitional section includes a livelier theme in Romanian style before we arrive at the yearning, melancholic second subject in E, with its falling chromatic profile. The ensuing development fully exploits the bravura possibilities of the viola and culminates in a short cadenza before the return of the opening theme, now heard in horn and flute. The recapitulation presents the various themes in subtly altered forms, and after a fierce orchestral climax the soloist introduces a passionate, recitative-like soliloquy which almost counts as a second cadenza. It ends on a single low C, the instrument’s bottom note, but a solo bassoon enunciates a variant of the first subject that forms a transition to the second movement, which follows without a break.

There are no tempo indications in Bartók’s draft, so Serly had to provide them, and the designation of this E minor/major movement as Adagio religioso is therefore his. But Bartók himself had used that description for the slow movement of the Third Piano Concerto, and the Viola Concerto’s second movement has a similarly intimate, devotional tone. It is in a simple ternary form, the outer sections based on a poignantly simple tune closely related to the first movement’s first subject. The central section features the solo viola, high in its register, making a repeated, almost desperate outcry which is marked piangendo (weeping). After the return of the opening section the viola launches into a ferocious cadenza-like effusion, supported by a rough orchestral ostinato, which leads into the finale.

Like the slow movement, this Allegro vivace (as Serly termed it) in A is short, but covers a lot of ground through its swift-running motion. It is a kind of rondo whose main theme, mainly in coruscating semiquavers, resembles some sublimated Magyar dance. A somewhat slower episode in a clear C sharp minor has a pawky rustic feeling, and after the return of the rondo-theme the other main episode is a defiantly joyous tune in A major (closely related to the opening theme of the entire concerto, now seen in a more positive light). This leads straight into a reprise of the first episode (now in F sharp) before the return of the rondo theme and a vertiginously brilliant coda in which the solo viola finally makes it to the finishing line, still travelling at full tilt.

The generation of Hungarian composers who came after that of Dohnányi, Kodály and Bartók included many gifted musicians whose careers were disrupted or uprooted by the political upheavals before the Second World War and Hungary’s position behind the Iron Curtain after it. Many fled to Britain or the USA, there to make new careers. Tibor Serly, however, had settled in New York, where he lived for most of his life, while still a child. He was born in 1901 in Losonc, which at that time was still part of the Kingdom of Hungary but is now Lucvenec in south-central Slovakia. Having spent his teens in the USA he returned to Hungary to study in Budapest with Kodály (composition), Leó Weiner (orchestration) and Jeno Hubay (violin) from 1922 to 1924, but he also greatly admired Bartók and as a result became his assistant at various times. They first met in Hungary in 1925, and two years later Serly acted as Bartók’s translator on his first visit to America. The friendship deepened during Serly’s subsequent visits to Europe.

A friend of some leading figures of the modernist movement, including the poets Louis Zukovsky and Ezra Pound, Serly played viola in the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra under Fritz Reiner from 1926 to 1927. He was then a violinist in the Philadelphia Orchestra under Leopold Stokowski from 1928 to 1935; Stokowski appointed him Assistant Conductor in 1933. As a violist once again, Serly became a member of the NBC Symphony Orchestra for its debut season of 1937–8, but then left to concentrate on teaching and composing. He taught at the Manhattan School of Music in New York and other institutions, and was also active as a conductor and theorist. (He eventually developed what he called an ‘enharmonicist’ musical language based on his observations of the practice of many twentieth-century composers who had been influenced by folklore—not only Bartók but also Stravinsky, Vaughan Williams and others.) He died in a traffic accident while visiting London in 1978.

When Bartók and his wife arrived in New York as refugees in 1940, Serly greeted them at the docks, and through the remainder of Bartók’s life spent much of his time supporting and visiting the older composer. In addition to his completions of Bartók’s Viola Concerto and Third Piano Concerto, he also arranged and edited several other Bartók scores (including a suite from the collection of piano pieces Mikrokosmos), and lost few opportunities to proselytize on behalf of the music of his great elder compatriot. As a result Serly’s own music—his works include two symphonies, a viola concerto (composed in 1929), a concerto for violin and wind instruments, chamber and vocal compositions—has tended to be overshadowed by his advocacy of Bartók. In a sense his Rhapsody for viola and orchestra also dwells within that shadow. It was composed in 1946–8: just at the time, therefore, when Serly was working on his realization of Bartók’s Viola Concerto. And its subtitle is, in fact, Rhapsody on Hungarian Folk Tunes harmonized by Béla Bartók; for the themes are taken from some of the folksong transcriptions that appear in Bartók’s piano cycle For Children. Serly sets them skilfully within interludes and elaborate decoration, and gives the overall conception a purposeful shape, with a rollicking finale.

Among the most successful of Serly’s generation at adapting himself to new circumstances was Miklós Rózsa, who went to California and soon became one of the most sought-after film composers in Hollywood. Second only in reputation to Erich Korngold, and surviving long after him, Rózsa scored over 100 feature films, including a stream of award-winning dramas and blockbusters, among them Spellbound, Double Indemnity, King of Kings, Quo Vadis?, Ben Hur, El Cid, Julius Caesar, Providence, The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes and Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid. Three of his film scores won Oscars.

Although Rózsa was born in Budapest, unlike most of his contemporary compatriots he did not study there; instead, from 1927 to 1931 he was a pupil at the Leipzig Conservatory and subsequently lived in Paris and London, where he wrote his first film scores for his fellow Hungarian Alexander Korda. He accompanied Korda to Hollywood in 1939 and stayed there for the rest of his life. However, Rózsa’s principal ambition was always to compose music for the concert hall. He had completed some substantial works—including a highly ambitious symphony—well before settling in Hollywood, and he continued to write concert works throughout his life, notably pieces for orchestra and string orchestra, string quartets, chamber and piano works. Rózsa was friendly with several leading performers, such as Jascha Heifetz, Gregor Piatigorsky and Leonard Pennario, who championed his works, and so his output includes several full-scale concertos. In addition to the Viola Concerto he wrote two Violin Concertos, a Cello Concerto, a Piano Concerto (there is also the one-movement ‘Spellbound’ Concerto he derived from his score to that movie) and a Sinfonia concertante for violin, cello and orchestra.

Despite the fact that he left Hungary at a relatively early age and studied his craft in Germany, Rózsa’s music—including his film music—is often imbued with distinct Hungarian national characteristics reminiscent of Kodály and Bartók, whose example he admired tremendously. The Hungarian accent of the Viola Concerto is plain to hear. Rózsa especially loved string instruments: he had begun playing the violin at the age of five and in his early teens became the leader of his high school orchestra. He admitted to a great fondness for the viola, but it was only towards the end of his life that he cast that instrument in a solo role. In fact the Viola Concerto was Rózsa’s final orchestral work, while the last work he ever completed was an Introduction and Allegro for unaccompanied viola, written in 1988.

The Viola Concerto, Op 37, was worked on between 1980 and 1984, and was actually composed at the suggestion of the cellist Piatigorsky. It had a somewhat troubled gestation as Rózsa was constantly being interrupted by appeals to provide Hollywood film-scores (he put aside the concerto in order to write his score for Alain Resnais’s Providence, for example). It was finally premiered in Pittsburgh in 1984 by Pinchas Zukerman, under the baton of André Previn. Rózsa had originally planned a concerto in the conventional three movements, but the first movement turned into ‘something darker and weightier’ than he had originally intended, so he felt the need to insert a contrastingly short, scherzo-like Allegro giocoso ahead of the slow movement and finale. The four-movement design somewhat resembles that of Ernest Bloch’s Suite for viola and orchestra, which may have been one model for Rózsa. Another was undoubtedly Bartók’s Viola Concerto of 1945; while Bartók contracted an original four-movement conception into three, Rózsa did the opposite. But the overall impression of the work is individual, darkly Romantic, and still authentically Hungarian in inspiration.

The big first movement is expansively, broodingly rhapsodic. From a sombre opening, the voice of the solo viola arises like a bardic singer telling a tragic yet inspiring tale. This vein of lyric melancholy predominates, but it alternates with much more energetic, incisively rhythmic music that drives to a passionate climax. A voluble solo cadenza occurs about two-thirds of the way through the movement, after which flute and harp accompany the viola to lead into the nostalgic and shadowy reprise and coda. The agile, dynamic scherzo is the perfect foil to this first movement, characterized by repeated figures and pounding rhythms. A resolute second subject brings the spirit of a quick march, but the movement evaporates in quick-fire instrumental solos ranging from piccolo to tuba, leading to a brilliantly throwaway ending.

The Adagio slow movement is an intensely lyrical Hungarian nocturne, calm at first but growing passionate and troubled. (In the central climax there is a distinct resemblance to the sequence ‘Brutus’ Secret’ in Rózsa’s 1953 film score for Joseph L Mankiewicz’s Julius Caesar, starring Marlon Brando, John Gielgud and James Mason.) The movement ends with the viola singing seraphically in harmonics in its highest register, and the finale bursts in without a break. This starts as a hectically exciting moto perpetuo but lapses time and again into warmer, nostalgically lyrical episodes, redolent of Hungarian folksong. As the movement progresses the march character of the second movement makes itself felt once again, and the music rouses itself to a triumphantly energetic and decisive conclusion.

Calum MacDonald © 2010

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