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ClassicsOnline Home » BARTOK: Violin Sonata, Sz. 117 / 44 Violin Duos, Sz. 98
BBC Music Magazine
Béla Bartók (1881 - 1945)
Sonata for Solo Violin, Sz 117
44 Duos for Two Violins
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 school-fellows the composer Erno 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 Zoltan 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 saygiin.
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 regime 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 years in America, whatever difficulties they brought, also gave rise to other important compositions, including the Concerto for Orchestra, commissioned by the Koussevitzky Foundation, a sonata for solo Violin for Yehudi Menuhin and, in the year before he left Hungary, Contrasts, for Szigeti and Benny Goodman.
The Sonata for solo violin was commissioned by Yehudi Menuhin, to whom it was dedicated and who gave the first performance in New York on 26th November 1944. It is an immensely challenging work, making great demands on both the performer and the listener. The first movement, marked Tempo di ciaccona is essentially a sonata-form movement, with something of the character of a chaconne but not its form. The opening chord may suggest the Bach sonata in G minor for unaccompanied violin, although what follows is very different, with its exploration of intervals generally associated with Hungarian folk- music and exploitation of the varied possibilities of the instrument. The Fuga is not a strict fugue, as the subject undergoes modifications and episodes introduce new material. The third movement Melodia is in ternary form, but the melody is subtly varied on its return. The sonata ends with a form of rondo, with three contrasting themes, all of which re-appear in the final coda.
Bartók wrote his 44 Duos for Two Violins in 1931, following earlier pedagogical work of a similar kind for the piano. The series of pieces advances in difficulty, with each piece based on folk-music of some kind, but treated with very considerable harmonic freedom. The pieces were published in four books. The first of these, containing fourteen pieces, opens with the simplest of material, although the use of sharply dissonant intervals between the two instruments even in the second piece may test the ear of the players. The Menuetto has a repeated drone bass and the Midsummer Night Song is treated in canon. Strongly dissonant intervals appear in the Slovakian Song. It is not until the eleventh piece, a Cradle Song, that polytonality is introduced, with a first violin key signature of B flat and D flat only, against a second violin key signature of F sharp. The book ends with a Pillow Dance of strong and occasionally off-beat accentuation.
The second book of duos opens with a forthright Soldiers' Song. Canon and inversion is used in Burlesque, with characteristic Hungarian rhythms in the two following Hungarian Marches. The Fairy Tale has a lop-sided rhythm, and interesting exchanges between the instruments take place in A Rhythm Song. The first New Year's Song is set against an ostinato accompaniment, while the buzzing of the mosquito in Mosquito Dance brings sudden changes of accent. There is due contrast between the Bride's Farewell and the Comic Song, and the book ends with a typical Hungarian Song.
The third book of duos starts with a useful exercise in rapid spiccato bowing, followed by an off-beat Limping Dance. Sorrow is gently explored, while varied rhythms mark the New Year's Greeting songs and the Dance from Máramaros is set against an insistent accompanying rhythm. Harvest Song is polytonal and Enumerating Song has shouted numbers, in its original song-game form. The Ruthenian Kolomeika is danced against an insistent and accentually varying rhythm, followed by Bagpipes replete with the necessary drones.
The fourth book contains eight pieces, starting with a Prelude and Canon, the latter varying the interval of imitation. There are exciting dances from Romania, Serbia and Wallachia, a rapid Scherzo, an Arabian Dance with the necessary augmented second intervals, a piece that is entirely pizzicato and a final Transylvanian Dance of energetic rhythm.
György Pauk was born in Budapest in 1936 and had his first violin lessons at the age of five. He studied at the Liszt Academy, made his orchestral debut at the age of fourteen and in the 1950s won the Paganini Competition in Genoa, the Munich Sonata Competition, with the pianist Peter Frankl, and the Long-Thibaud Competition in Paris. He made his London Festival Hall debut in 1961, settling in England, his base thereafter for a distinguished international career. In addition to his command of standard solo violin repertoire György Pauk is known for his championship of contemporary music, with first performances of works by Lutoslawski, Penderecki, Schnittke and Maxwell Davies, and for his perceptive and committed performance of the music of Béla Bartók. He plays the 1714 Massart Stradivarius.
The Japanese violinist Kazuki Sawa entered the Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music in 1973 and studied therewith Yoshio Unno. International attention was aroused with the winning of prizes at the Long- Thibaud and Wienawski International Competitions and he was also awarded the Ysaÿe medal from the Ysaÿe Association of Belgium and a Gold Medal at the 1979 Bordeaux Festival. From that date until 1984 he studied in London with György Pauk and Béla Katona, winning an award in the violin/ piano duo class at the 1983 Munich International Competition. In 1984 he returned to Japan, where he began a busy professional career, sponsored by the Japanese Ministry of Education. He is now on the teaching staff of the Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music and has established the Sawa Quartet, regarded as one of the most promising ensembles of its kind in Japan. Kazuki Sawa plays the Arkwright Joseph Guarnerius del Gesu violin, dated 1732.
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BARTOK: Violin Sonata, Sz. 117 / 44 Violin Duos, S...