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ClassicsOnline Home » BARTOK, B.: Concerto for Orchestra / Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta (Baltimore Symphony, Alsop)
Béla Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra, one of his greatest works, was written in the United States after the composer was forced to flee Hungary during World War II. It is not only a brilliant display vehicle for each instrumental section but a work of considerable structural ingenuity that unites classical forms and sonorities with the pungency of folk rhythms and harmonies. Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta explores darker moods through a score of marvellously poised symmetry. This release follows Marin Alsop’s ‘riveting’ (Gramophone) Baltimore Symphony recordings of Dvořák’s symphonies.
By Steve Arloff
Béla Bartók (1881–1945)
Concerto for Orchestra • Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta
The Hungarian composer Béla Bartók was born in 1881 in an area that now forms part of Romania. His father, director of an agricultural college, was a keen amateur musician, while it was from his mother that he received his early piano lessons. The death of his father in 1889 led to a less settled existence, as his mother resumed work as a teacher, eventually settling in the Slovak capital of Bratislava (the Hungarian Pozsony), where Bartók passed his early adolescence, counting among his schoolmates the composer Ernő Dohnányi. Offered the chance of musical training in Vienna, like Dohnányi he chose instead Budapest, where he won a considerable reputation as a pianist, being appointed to the teaching staff of the Academy of Music in 1907. At the same time he developed a deep interest, shared with his compatriot Zoltán Kodály, in the folk music of his own and adjacent countries, later extended as far as Anatolia, where he collaborated in research with the Turkish composer Adnan Saygun.
As a composer Bartók found acceptance much more difficult, particularly in his own country, which was, in any case, beset by political troubles, when the brief post-war left-wing government of Béla Kun was replaced by the reactionary régime of Admiral Horthy. Meanwhile his reputation abroad grew, particularly among those with an interest in contemporary music, and his success both as a pianist and as a composer, coupled with dissatisfaction at the growing association between the Horthy government and National Socialist Germany, led him in 1940 to emigrate to the United States.
In his last years, after briefly-held teaching appointments at Columbia and Harvard, Bartók suffered from increasing ill health, and from poverty which the conditions of exile in war time could do nothing to alleviate. He died in straitened circumstances in 1945, leaving a new Viola Concerto incomplete and a Third Piano Concerto more nearly finished.
The Concerto for Orchestra is among the composer’s last works. It was commissioned by the Koussevitzky Music Foundation in 1943 in memory of the distinguished conductor Sergey Koussevitzky’s wife Natalie and received its first performance by the Boston Symphony Orchestra under Koussevitzky in December 1944. The work displays the virtuoso talents of different sections of the orchestra, using devices of textural and dynamic contrast, thus justifying its title.
Bartók himself wrote of the gradual transition of the work from the severity of the first movement, to the third, with its song of death and to the finale with its reassertion of life. The second movement varies this progress by treating pairs of instruments in different harmonic intervals, a light-hearted interlude. Contrapuntal possibilities are explored in the first movement, while the third has the air of a folk song, coupled with the mood of night music that was part of the composer’s musical language. A fragment of the Seventh Symphony of Shostakovich interrupts the Intermezzo, by way of parody, while the last movement contrasts the perpetual motion of the violins with a fugal subject.
Bartók’s Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta was written in 1936, commissioned by Paul Sacher, founder and conductor of the Basle Chamber Orchestra, whose patronage has been so important in music of the twentieth century. It was first performed by the orchestra under its conductor in Basle on 21 January 1937. The work is scored for two groups of strings ranged either side of percussion instruments that include side drum, snare drum, cymbals, tam-tam, bass drum, timpani and xylophone, with celesta, harp and piano. The first of the four movements is opened by muted violas with a slow chromatic melody, imitated by the violins on the right of the conductor and then by both groups of cellos, followed by an upper violin part. Each entry is on alternate upper or lower notes of the circle of fifths, a further example of the meticulous symmetry of the work that has led to plausible theories of mathematical analysis, for which there seems considerable justification. Here the successive entries lead to a central entry on E flat, the climax of the movement, after which the process is reversed. The second movement, thematically related to the seminal first movement theme, contrasts the two string groups in its opening and is broadly in sonata form, with exposition, development and final recapitulation. The Adagio, another example of the composer’s night music mood, opens with xylophone and timpani, joined by tremolo cellos and double basses, through the sound of which the first viola melody emerges. The movement is constructed sectionally, each of the six sections in complex relationship with each other and with the motifs that make up the opening theme of the whole work. The final movement, in form essentially a rondo, introduced by two clear notes from the timpani, continues with a pattern of pizzicato string chords, arpeggiated downwards, against which the second group of strings introduce a Bulgarian folk dance rhythm with a melody derived from the opening theme, here presented in ternary form. The movement ends stridently enough, reaching a final consonant A major chord.
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