About this Recording
8.111343 - BARTOK, B.: Contrasts / Rhapsody No. 1 / Mikrokosmos (excerpts) (Bartok, Szigeti, Goodman) (Bartok Plays Bartok) (1940)

Béla Bartók (1881–1945)
Contrasts • Rhapsody No. 1 • Mikrokosmos (excerpts)


Béla Bartók was born in a Hungarian village and died in New York, a leukaemia-suffering émigré. He received his first music lessons from his mother, who was a fine pianist and also a responsible mother, not least when her husband died in 1888, their young son Béla still a child. Following this maternal musical instruction, Bartók then took music lessons from László Erkel (son of the composer Ferenc Erkel) in Bratislava and in 1899, rejecting the place offered at the Vienna Conservatory, he was able to enrol as a student at the Budapest Academy of Music. As a pianist, Bartók had given his first public appearance at the age of eleven, and his period at the Academy allowed him further to develop his abilities. At this time he also took to teaching and remained associated with the Royal Academy until 1934 in this rôle. This release includes all of Bartók’s published recordings made as a pianist for the American Columbia label, an invaluable source given they not only capture Bartók’s playing but he is heard interpreting his own music as well as performing with other significant musicians.

As a composer Bartók’s earliest pieces reveal him to be under the influence of the leading creators of the time, particularly Wagner, Richard Strauss and his fellow-countryman, Liszt. In trying to find a distinctive compositional style, it was Bartók’s friend and fellow-composer Zoltán Kodály (1882–1967) who directed his attention to folk-music, its discovery opening up a new range of possibilities for Bartók. This, coupled with his getting to know the music of his contemporaries, particularly pieces by Debussy, signalled that Bartók’s musical expression now became altogether more personal. Bartók’s, and indeed Kodály’s, interest in folk-music went beyond knowing and using it. Both of them undertook trips to collect, through notation, and then publishing, the numerous songs that had been passed through generations of gypsies, peasants and villagers. And for all the raw and popular flavour of the indigenous music that he absorbed into his music, Bartók’s scores took on a more modernist stance while also remaining broadly traditional. Like all great composers, and Bartók is one, his style and sound, meticulously written out, became inimitable.

Bartók’s mature music, whether in the six string quartets, music for the stage (the opera Duke Bluebeard’s Castle and the ballets The Wooden Prince and The Miraculous Mandarin) or orchestral classics such as Dance Suite, Music for strings, percussion and celesta, and Concerto for Orchestra, helped to make his reputation, sustained to this day, and he toured widely in the 1920s and 1930s as a pianist (his repertoire not exclusively being of his own music) and as a composer attending premières of his latest pieces. Sometimes he combined both rôles, such as in 1927 when he played the solo part in Piano Concerto No. 1 with Wilhelm Furtwängler conducting.

Despite such fame Bartók did not lose sight of his roots or his commitment to teaching. His Mikrokosmos cycle mirrors his dedication as a teacher, and its composition occupied him on and off in the late 1920s and during the 1930s. Mikrokosmos consists of 153 pieces spread across six volumes and arranged in order of difficulty, music that has a specific purpose but which also transcends the disciplines of technique that are inherent in them. Sometimes the titles are explicit as to their mechanical leaning; others—such as From the Island of Bali, From the Diary of a Fly, Wrestling, Village Joke, and Boating—give an attractive pictorial substance. Bartók’s own playing must be considered authoritative in these 32 selections. One admires the composer’s spirit and sensitivity, also how naturally the melodies and rhythms emerge, that these pieces are part of the man and that he had the ability to play them superbly.

Contrasts, for violin, clarinet and piano, was composed in 1938 to a commission from Benny Goodman (1909–86), the versatile American bandleader and clarinettist who strode the musical worlds of jazz and classical with ease; he was known as the King of Swing, recorded Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto (with the Boston Symphony and Charles Munch) and Clarinet Quintet, and commissioned the Clarinet Concerto of Aaron Copland. Contrasts is based on Hungarian and Romanian dance melodies and, quite clearly, Bartók was able to write artlessly in a jazz style, as the cadenza for clarinet in the rather laconic first movement demonstrates. Contrasts, as the title suggests, is a diverse piece, the middle movement fragile and searching, the finale (beginning, maybe, with a conscious reference to Saint-Saëns’s Danse macabre), the wildest of the three with pungent trills and stamping rhythms as well as a referral back to the middle movement. With Goodman himself taking part, not to mention the composer, this recording could reasonably be counted as definitive. It also features the Hungarian violinist, Joseph Szigeti (1892–1973); his friendship with Bartók began towards the end of World War I and lasted until the composer’s death. His dryly intense tone and very expressive playing is also heard in Bartók’s Rhapsody No. 1, for violin and piano. As elsewhere one senses that bringing this music alive was the most innate of occupations; a feeling of improvisation, abandon even, is noticeable, yet Bartók was the most painstaking of composers and the teamwork of these artists, Bartók and Szigeti, is distinguished by mutual trust and complete identification with the music, its ethno roots and its final sophistication, in playing both free and focused.

Bartók’s emigration to the United States coincided with the outbreak of World War II. His second wife, Ditta Pásztory, also a pianist, travelled with him. Although these recordings report a musician and pianist in fine fettle, his circumstances and increasingly-faltering health tell another story. Although he took a post at Columbia University, concert engagements were few, and a serious financial situation was somewhat helped by Serge Koussevitzky’s commissioning from him Concerto for Orchestra for the Boston Symphony (Naxos 8.110105). He also finished (more or less) a third piano concerto, which was intended for his wife (if first played by György Sándor), a pragmatic act on the composer’s part in order to ensure that his widow would have music to play and money to earn.

These recordings from 1940 were made at a time of great difficulty for Béla Bartók, with the upheaval of emigration, the strain of illness and a falling away of engagements and income. Nevertheless, the innocent ear can surely only be compelled by the fire and dynamism of his playing his own music and also with his rewarding interaction with the other musicians.

Colin Anderson


Producer’s Note

This disc presents Bartók’s complete published American Columbia recordings, all made in a series of sessions in New York in April and May of 1940. The sources for the transfers of Contrasts and the Rhapsody were pre-war “Microphone” label American Columbia shellac 78s. The original recordings did not have a great deal of high frequency information, and sound rather muffled even without any filtering. (Columbia’s later LP transfers of these recordings proved no better in this regard, suggesting that either they had departed from their practice at that time of recording masters on wide-frequency range lacquers or that these lacquers no longer existed.) The surfaces of these first-edition pressings were, however, admirably quiet.

Bartók recorded twelve twelve-inch sides of excerpts from Mikrokosmos for American Columbia. Six of these sides were published in an album of 78s at the time, while another five were first released on LP in 1951 along with the earlier sides. One Mikrokosmos side remains unpublished, as well as two twelve-inch sides devoted to other short solo piano works. In order to maintain a consistent sound for the Mikrokosmos sides, I have transferred all of them from LP rather than splitting them up between what was published on 78s and what was only available in long-playing form. Despite much declicking (both computerized and manual), some flaws remain from Columbia’s original 1951 transfers.

Mark Obert-Thorn

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