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Sir Charles Mackerras and the SCO offer fresh, authentic and perceptive interpretations of works by Bartók and Kodály.
If I were to name the composer whose works are the most perfect embodiment of the Hungarian spirit, I would answer, Kodály…The obvious explanation is that all Kodály’s composing activity is rooted only in Hungarian soil, but the deep inner reason is his unshakeable faith and trust in the constructive power and future of his people.
The Dances of Galánta, inspired by the eponymous small market town in western Hungary where Kodály spent seven childhood years, is probably his most popular composition. At the end of the nineteenth century a famous Romani band played there, and their sonorities no doubt impressed themselves on him. Yet his main source for this 1933 composition was a Viennese publication containing some music ‘after several gipsies from Galánta’. This music was in the verbunkos (recruiting dance) tradition most widely cultivated by Romani bands from the eighteenth century on. Written for the 80th anniversary of the Budapest Philharmonic Society, the Dances of Galánta is characterised by rondo-form construction and a brilliant, Debussy-influenced orchestration that captures the spirit of the original.
Béla Bartók (1881-1945) wrote his Music for strings, percussion and celesta (1936), Sonata for two pianos and percussion (1937) and the Divertimento (1939) just before World War 2, at a time of gathering gloom in Europe. The first of these pieces, composed in the summer of 1936 for the Swiss conductor Paul Sacher and the Basle Chamber Orchestra on its tenth anniversary, is rightly regarded as the most significant of his chamber orchestra works, displaying as it does Bartók’s highly-developed techniques of variation and an amazing economy of means. The premiere took place in Basle on 21 January 1937. The instrumentation is both unusual and challenging: a double string orchestra with celesta, harp, piano, xylophone, kettledrums and a miscellaneous collection of percussion under the control of one player. The common title of the work in English, however, Music for strings, percussion and celesta, is somewhat misleading since the word in the original German title, ‘Saiteninstrumente’, refers to instruments that have strings but which are not necessarily bowed, such as the harp, and while technically the piano is a percussion instrument it operates through the striking of strings by hammers. Bartók himself only finalised the title as he evolved the conception of the scoring.
The placement of the orchestra on the stage has the two groups of string players separated by the other instruments which are placed centrally, and this spatial relationship gives a sense of three-dimensionality in performance. Bartók uses the string instruments both antiphonally and in combination, with and without the percussion instruments, all of which are sounded in original and imaginative ways. This recording uses a smaller orchestra than is customary, one specifically allowed by Bartók in a letter of 1936 to Max Adam, in which he mentions that Paul Sacher had 30 string players available and that this was sufficient. The only proviso was that the two string orchestras should have equal numbers. Comparable to Sacher’s original forces, the present recording uses 34 string players who are equally divided into five first violins, four second violins, three violas, three cellos and two double basses for each orchestra.
The first movement is remarkable for its twisting fugue subject which, spanning all eight semitones between A and E, contains within it all subsequent development. In its six and a half minutes this movement is tightly constructed, rising to a single crescendo (at the most distant tonal point of E flat) that is eventually succeeded by a return to atonality and, after a shimmering four bars of celesta figuration, a falling away to silence. Bartók’s tendency to use a systematic variation technique in his works of this period is best seen through the reference to the opening fugue theme in each movement. The second movement, dance-like and in sonata form, takes much of its material from the motives of this opening fugue. Its structure of exposition, development (with a fugato passage) and recapitulation is carried along with irresistible energy.
The third movement, Adagio, explores, often magically, the sonorities of the instruments. The tonal materials, all derived from the fugue subject, are subsumed into a ‘night music’ fabric of rustling strings, tapping xylophone notes and glittering celesta, harp and piano figurations. Bartók had already explored the insect-like world of ‘night music’ in his Out of Doors Suite for piano of 1926, but here the concept is taken further. The balance of the sections in this slow movement is maintained through one of Bartók’s arching structures, with the fugue subject again serving as the link between them. In the finale, the main theme is a straightened-out, Lydian-scale version of the opening fugue subject, its jazzy rhythm of 2+3+3 within a standard 2/2 metre resembling that of the fourth (3+2+3) of the six piano pieces ‘in Bulgarian rhythm’. The movement has a rondo-like structure, with each return of the theme varied. A restrained meno mosso section provides a short lull before the strident final cadence.
At the time Bartók was writing these works he was deeply immersed in his analysis of East European folk music. He had made collecting expeditions much earlier, not only in his native Hungary but also in Romania and Slovakia, and he was in close contact with scholars in Bulgaria, Yugoslavia, and elsewhere. And in 1937 he was composing five of his ‘Six Dances in Bulgarian Rhythm’ for the collection of piano studies known as Mikrokosmos (1932-39). His reverence for Bach, on the other hand, led him as a composer into attempting at this time a synthesis of Baroque procedures (imitation, inversion) and folk music (multiple techniques of variation). But no one can fully understand Bartók without referring to his folk music collecting, transcription and analysis, which actually absorbed more of his time than did composition. The passion he felt for peasant music lies at the basis of all his mature music, even in this renowned work, which marks a high point in his intense ‘middle period’. Paul Sacher described Bartók’s personality well at this time:
Whoever met Bartók, thinking of the rhythmic strength of his work, was surprised by his slight, delicate figure. He had the outward appearance of a fine-nerved scholar. Possessed of a fanatical will and pitiless severity, and propelled by an ardent spirit, he affected inaccessibility and was reservedly polite. His being breathed light and brightness, his eyes burned with a noble fire. In the flash of his searching glance no falseness nor obscurity could endure. If in performance an especially hazardous and refractory passage came off well, he laughed in boyish glee, and when he was pleased with the successful solution of a problem, he actually beamed. That meant more than forced compliments, which I never heard from his mouth…
The less severe Divertimento was also written for Sacher and the Basle Chamber Orchestra, who gave the premiere in Basle on 11 June 1940. Its three movements were written in just fifteen days and the work was completed on 17 August 1939. Its two bright, joyful outer structures enclose a sombre Adagio. On the whole the piece is more akin to the Dance Suite of 1923 in its amiable and carefree moods: harmonies are mostly triadic, and the counterpoint is clearly delineated. Only the central movement is darkly introspective, perhaps reflecting the news that Bartók’s mother was now seriously ill. In this work the composer seems to look back to the concerto grosso of the eighteenth century, with its concertino of solo instruments and a ripieno consisting normally of an orchestra of strings. But his conception was not a retrograde, ‘antique’ one that imitated the earlier genre. The first movement is a sonata form, the finale is again rondo-like, and the Adagio is in four sections of which the first and last match each other.
Rhythmically the first movement is predominantly in 6/8 and 9/8, meters that are not especially common in Bartók’s compositions (nor in Hungarian folk music). The main theme of the first movement is a relatively simple melody in the violins over pulsing quavers. The basic tonality is F major, with a hint of the Lydian mode in the harmonic support. A second thematic idea in A major appears, but the tonality thereafter melts through bitonal harmonies and gradually, at the development, turns into B flat. Most of the development uses imitation, with intermittent five-part canonic writing and the contrast of solo and tutti passages. The recapitulation varies the main melody, its tranquil mood ruffled only by a short passage of imitative chromatic writing before drawing serenely to a close.
The Adagio that follows changes the mood entirely with its anguished melodic turn of E sharp-G-F sharp, which is developed into a twisting line over an oscillating quaver bass. In the second section the violas create a dramatic statement in a marked rhythm reminiscent of a Hungarian Old Style melody, and a third section sees the return of the first theme, the pianissimos of the coda punctuated by passionate exclamations. The finale is one of Bartók’s brilliant dance-like conceptions, with a scampering main theme and a double fugato that forms the central section. Following a cadenza pause by the solo violin the main melody reappears, this time inverted. Later, Bartók introduces a cheeky parody of a polka, a satirical comment on café-music that is rudely interrupted by swirling violins in a triplet figuration leading to a vivacious coda.
James Porter © 2004