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Buffalo Philharmonic records early works by Béla Bartók

November 25, 2013

by JoAnn Falletta

Béla Bartók

On November 22 and 23, 2013, the Buffalo Philharmonic undertook a fascinating project for Naxos—an illuminating exploration of the music of the young Béla Bartók. The orchestra was largely unfamiliar with Bartók’s early works, and the project was a revelation of the artistry and the character of the young composer.

Klaus Heymann had encouraged us particularly to include Kossuth in our recording plans and the work astounded all of us. It had been a special favorite of my teacher, Maestro Sixten Ehrling, but due to its large proportions I had never included it in my repertoire. It was an incredible discovery for me and the musicians, all the more so because it was Bartók’s first work after he graduated from the conservatory. Written in 1903, the work was inspired by the fervent patriotism that had spread through Hungary at the time. Hungary had celebrated its millennium in 1896, and this had sparked passionate demonstrations against the Austrian Empire. Bartók and his colleagues were swept up in the desire for an independent and free Hungary. The composer dressed in the national costume, refused to speak German and vowed to create a music that was specifically Hungarian. It is ironic that the other main inspiration came from the iconic work of a towering German artist—Richard Strauss’ Also Sprach Zarathustra. Bartók was dazzled by Strauss’ new “form”—the symphonic tone poem—and saw it as the perfect vehicle for his own patriotic expression. His Kossuth tells the story of the Hungarian hero Laos Kossuth, who in 1848 mounted a courageous struggle to win independence from Austria. The rebellion was brutally crushed by the Austrian army, and Kossuth and many Hungarian patriots were killed, but he became a beloved hero to his people. The work is a panorama of Kossuth’s yearnings for freedom, his call to his countrymen, terrifying battle scenes, and, at the end, the hopeless silence of despair, and Kossuth’s funeral march. The musicians were amazed that a piece of such power and pathos was not in the standard repertoire of every orchestra, and we were glad to introduce it to our audience (it was the first performance in Buffalo). I came to completely understand why Maestro Ehrling had so loved this work.

We included Bartók’s Suite No 1 on our concerts and recordings, a warm-hearted, swashbuckling Hungarian tour-de-force. From dizzying rubatos to impassioned solos to wild dance music, this is a piece filled with color, humor, drama and high spirits, showing a Romantic side to the composer that was very different from his later style. I absolutely loved it and hope that the Naxos recording will encourage more performances of this youthful masterpiece.

Our final choice was extremely revealing of the personal life of the young Béla Bartók, and very poignant. In his early 20’s Bartók fell in love with a beautiful and gifted violinist, Stefi Geyer. He wrote his first violin concerto for her, telling her that the opening movement was actually a tender and loving portrait of her. Sadly, his love was unrequited—Stefi never played the piece, and actually kept it hidden in a drawer for decades (the first violin concerto was not played until it was discovered 50 years later). But Bartók had always especially loved that first movement, and he recast it as his first Portrait, an enduring testament to his love for Stefi. He paired it, though, with a second Portrait, based on the same “Stefi” theme, but in a setting that was jolting, brash, shrill and sardonic, a kind of grotesque parody of the first Portrait. Bartók called it “My Sweetheart Dancing”, but its complete lack of tenderness bespeaks the complexities of his relationship with his first love, and a very complicated yearning for a woman who would never be his. Our concertmaster Michael Ludwig played the solo in the first Portrait with a bittersweet intensity and profound emotion.

Naxos has encouraged us always to explore repertoire that is lesser-known and rarely played. Because of their partnership and Klaus Heymann’s vision, the Buffalo Philharmonic has discovered a wide range of extraordinary music—from Charles Tomlinson Griffes to Ernő von Dohnányi to Duke Ellington. Our Béla Bartók project immensely enriched and inspired us with music that was unexpected, romantic and deeply rewarding.

Our partner, producer Tim Handley, was (as always) an extraordinary guide through our recording process. He is an incredible musician who is much loved by the Buffalo Philharmonic.

Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra Biography & Discography

Béla Bartók Biography & Discography


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