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Viola Concerto, Sz120
1945; commissioned by William Primrose; Bartók left an incomplete short score only; edited and completed by Tibor Serly; first performed by Primrose on 2 December 1949 with the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra under Antal Dorati

'Bartók & Rózsa: Viola Concertos' (CDA67687)
Bartók & Rózsa: Viola Concertos
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Movement 1: Moderato
Movement 2: Adagio religioso
Movement 3: Allegro vivace

Viola Concerto, Sz120
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.

from notes by Calum MacDonald © 2010

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Details for CDA67687 track 6
Adagio religioso
Recording date
20 August 2009
Recording venue
Grieghallen, Bergen, Norway
Recording producer
Andrew Keener
Recording engineer
Simon Eadon & Gunnar Herleif Nilsen
Hyperion usage
  1. Bartók & Rózsa: Viola Concertos (CDA67687)
    Disc 1 Track 6
    Release date: October 2010
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