Movement 1: Verbunkos 'Recruiting Dance': Moderato ben ritmato
Movement 2: Pihenö 'Relaxation': Lento
Movement 3: Sebes 'Fast Dance': Allegro vivace
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