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Hyperion Records

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Track(s) taken from CDH55149
Recording details: January 1990
Rosslyn Hill Unitarian Chapel, Hampstead, London, United Kingdom
Produced by Andrew Keener
Engineered by Antony Howell
Release date: November 1990
Total duration: 17 minutes 3 seconds

'An outstandingly successful and enjoyable issue' (Gramophone)

'A distinguished and well recorded issue' (The Penguin Guide to Compact Discs)

'…this music has never sounded so seductive on disc … Everything is played with a glowing affection and naturalness' (International Record Review)

'Enthralling programme … a riveting account of Bartók's Sonata … fiery intensity, commanding technique and perfect intonation' (The Strad)

'Go out and buy a copy' (Classic CD)

Contrasts, Sz111

Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
For Contrasts we have to thank the fertile and loyal imagination of Szigeti – or in his own words ‘a brainstorm I had in 1938’ – which resulted in him persuading the jazz clarinettist Benny Goodman to commission a trio from Bartók. Originally the plan was for another two-movement Rhapsody in the lassú–friss format, each movement capable of fitting on one side of a 78rpm disc. This, indeed, was how the work was first billed and performed in January 1939, at a New York concert by Goodman, Szigeti and Endre Petri. By 1940, when Bartók joined Goodman and Szigeti for a Carnegie Hall concert and a gramophone recording, the work had acquired its present title (decided together by Bartók and Szigeti one evening on Park Avenue) and, more importantly, its central ‘Pihenö’ movement (literally, ‘Taking a rest’; in this case an evocative outdoor nocturnal scene, coloured by a few suggestions of Indonesian gamelan).

The similarities and differences from the earlier rhapsodies are interesting. If the melodies are now Bartók’s own, the lassú–friss gypsy sequence remains across the outer movements, under the titles ‘Verbunkos’ (an old army recruiting dance) and ‘Sebes’ (Quick). A more novel aspect to the work, recounted by Benny Goodman, is that Bartók derived inspiration by listening to recordings of Goodman’s jazz trio with Teddy Wilson and Gene Krupa. As with Gershwin, whose music had already sounded a few echoes in Bartók’s Mikrokosmos, Bartók doubtless appreciated the affinities with folk idioms, and he later confided to Szigeti that the opening of the ‘Verbunkos’, while following his normal lassú tempo, was equally inspired by the ‘Blues’ from Ravel’s Violin Sonata. (‘Spot-the-resemblance’ seems to have been a sport between Szigeti and Bartók; Szigeti relates that in rehearsal they came to refer to the transition at bar 169 of the finale as ‘Scarlatti’.)

Clowning is rarely far from Bartók’s music, despite its over-austere reputation. Among the outright gags in Contrasts, the first movement contains an unmistakable parody of a wind-up gramophone running down – perhaps an impish reference to the work’s terms of commission, combined with memories of Bartók’s years of folksong collecting on wax cylinders? Similarly, the mistuned violin that opens the finale may be mostly peasant ribaldry, but could just also be a facetious prod at Saint-Saëns. As the burlesque gets properly under way the violinist changes to a properly tuned instrument, while the others literally twiddle their thumbs or fingers, repeating a trite little ostinato figure ad libitum until the violinist is ready to continue. In the middle of the finale’s romp, though, lies one of Bartók’s most haunting inspirations, an extended lyrical episode set in ‘Bulgarian’ 13/8 metre divided 3+2+3+2+3 – in effect a delicious type of elaborated rumba.

from notes by Roy Howat © 1990

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