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Discovering Bartók: Marin Alsop talks to Jeremy Siepmann

May 17, 2012

Marin Alsop

For more than half a century now, Béla Bartók has been securely enshrined as a giant, one of the great pillars of twentieth-century music. Yet even at his simplest, he has never been an easy composer—for listeners or performers. Even such a renowned champion of contemporary music as Marin Alsop had to work at penetrating his very special world. Characteristically, she persevered. And it was worth it. ‘For me,’ she says, ‘understanding his personal journey and the way he was able to find his own individual voice through the elements of folk song was very meaningful. I first got close to Bartók by listening to many of those old field recordings that he made with Kodály and which are now out on these historical CDs: by listening to the folk music and by hearing the vocabulary, if I can put it that way. I’ve been interested in this whole aspect since I was 16 years old. Then in my first year at Yale, I was assigned the Bartók Contrasts, for violin, clarinet and piano. And I remember thinking at the time “I’m never going to be able to get this piece”. I thought “Oh this contemporary music! I can’t possibly do this stuff!” But by listening to the folk music of the region and getting to understand the scales and the modal quality, I really started gaining an incredible respect for and affinity with this man.’

Among the things she discovered is that Bartók’s sound world is usually a far cry from the hammer and tongs percussiveness of legend. ‘I actually tend to regard him as a kind of folk impressionist. Almost all the time when I’m conducting Bartók, I’ll be thinking of Debussy—especially in the Concerto for Orchestra.

All concertos are intrinsically dramatic, and most have something of the game in them. This applies even to the most serious. Alsop, however, finds in the Concerto for Orchestra not only moments of out and out playfulness, but of humour—again, definitely not part of the legend. ‘Though I’ve never had the impression that Bartók was exactly a light-hearted guy, that doesn’t mean he lacked humour. It would be hard, for instance, to listen to the movement with the two bassoons and not get a good chuckle out of it.’

For all its overall seriousness, is the work in some ways actually fun to conduct? ‘Oh definitely! And challenging. It’s got such range—from that opening, rather barren landscape, all the way through to this huge, colourful, almost Stravinskyian orchestration and energy. And it’s incredibly successful just in terms of being tied together. The material on which every movement is based is connected—so from the conductor’s standpoint, one of the main challenges is architectural, connecting the dots for the listener.’

And what of the other work in this release? ‘The challenges are equal but different. The Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta is a more intimate piece, mostly because of the orchestration, and the soloistic quality of it (there are many divisi passages in the strings where everybody needs to be a soloist in a way). Bartók was one of the great orchestrators, with a wonderful understanding of the instruments. He was also a great pianist, and wrote a lot for the piano, there’s never any sense in the orchestral music that he wrote it at the keyboard and then scored it. Something which I can feel, occasionally, with other composers.’

Between them, the two works in this release give us a richly coloured portrait of the composer. But he reveals himself in different ways, highlighting contrasting aspects of a remarkably unified personality. ‘The Concerto for Orchestra is in arch form. The highpoint, for me, falls in the third movement, the slow movement, which I find the most challenging of them all to conduct and get across. But structurally, that’s where I’m headed. The Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta is all about a different kind of symmetry (Bartók is all about symmetry). And it’s built in a unique way, full of mirror images. You could say it’s a rather cerebral piece, but it doesn’t come across that way at all. As I look at his graph of it, it looks like a really complex mathematical problem. It’s really freaky, actually. Fibonacci numbers, the golden mean, things like that, Bartók took all that in. He really did apply these mathematical ideas to his music—but this is all more than the listener (or the conductor!) really needs to know.’

And what does Alsop most hope the discovering listener will derive from hearing this disc? ‘I would hope, mostly, that people will say “Hey, you know, this is really listenable!” I think there’s still an inherent reticence about Bartók. You know, I really shouldn’t say this out loud, but every time I try to program Bartók, at least in America, everyone runs for the hills. It’s like box office death! After all these years. I think it’s because people don’t understand the sound world. They’re not getting the connection to popular music … So maybe that’s what I’m hoping they can hear in our interpretation. That there’s a primitive, informal quality about the music that’s rustic and primal. I really hope that that comes through.’

Marin Alsop Biography & Discography

Béla Bartók Biography & Discography

Previous Bartók releases by Marin Alsop and the Bournemouth Symphony


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