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ClassicsOnline Home » BARTOK: Concerto for Orchestra / Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta
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Béla Bartók (1881 - 1945)
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 Sratislava (the
Hungarian Pozsony), where Bartók passed his early adolescence, counting among his
school-fellows the composer Ernö Dohnanyi. Offered the chance of musical training in
Vienna, like Dohnanyi 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 Zoltan Kodaly, 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 Saygün.
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 of America.
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 Nathalie 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 21st 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.
BRT Philharmonic Orchestra, Brussels
The history of the BRT Philharmonic Orchestra, Brussels goes
back to the birth of the Belgian Radio in the 1930's. After the well-known musicologist
and promoter of contemporary music, Paul Collaer, had become head of the Music Department
of the Belgian Radio, the orchestra, under its conductor Franz Andre, gained a world-wide
reputation for its interpretations of the latest compositions of Stravinsky, Berg,
Bartók, Hindemith and other 20th century composers. The orchestra gave the first European
performance of Bartók's Concerto for Orchestra in Paris and the first West European
performance of the Fourth Symphony by Shostakovich, and has, over the years, worked with
many leading conductors, from Pierre Boulez, Paul Hindemith and Darius Milhaud to Lorin
Maazel and Zubin Mehta.
In 1978 the Radio Symphony Orchestra was dissolved and both the
Flemish and the French Radio divisions set up their own symphony orchestras. The Flemish
network soon had a new orchestra, the BRT Philharmonic, with some 90 musicians and Fernand
Terby became its principal conductor from 1978 to 1988. Since 1988, Alexander Rahbari has
been the principal conductor and musical director of the new BRT Philharmonic Orchestra.
Alexander Rahbari was born in Iran in 1948 and was trained as a
conductor at the Vienna Music Academy as a pupil of von Einem, Swarowsky and
Österreicher. On his return to Iran he was appointed director of the Teheran Conservatory
of Music and took a leading position in the cultural development of his country. In 1977
he moved to Europe, winning first prize in the Besançon International Conductors'
Competition and the Geneva silver medal. In 1979 he was invited by Herbert von Karajan to
conduct the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra and served as von Karajan's assistant in
Salzburg. Rahbari's subsequent career has been highly successful, with concerts throughout
the world and engagements in leading opera-houses. He is Principal Guest Conductor of the
Czech Philharmonic Orchestra and has conducted major orchestras throughout Europe. in
Japan and in Canada. Alexander Rahbari is now a citizen of Austria.
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BARTOK: Concerto for Orchestra / Music for Strings...