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Jonathan Woolf
MusicWeb International, April 2010

What could be more alluring than the stark dynamism of Bartók’s piano playing, the warm timbral shading of Benny Goodman’s clarinet and the astringent aristocracy of Josef Szigeti’s violin? Of course it means the composer’s Contrasts in this famed old 1940 recording, restored once more under the Bartók plays Bartók rubric of the Naxos Historical series. If anything is self-evidently definitive in the context of the composer’s own contribution then this is surely it, and the fact that all three of the works here comprise Bartók’s complete commercial American discography adds a further gloss on the matter.

Contrasts was commissioned by Goodman. We can admire his puckish curlicues at the end of the Verbunkos recruiting dance and reflect on the fact that he would have sounded rather different had he studied earlier with Reginald Kell; not better, necessarily, but different. Szigeti’s provocative abrasions act as fruitful soil-drenched Hungarian astringencies. The nocturnal fireflies of the central movement are faithfully captured. No less so is the pungent chordal support supplied by the composer in the Sebes, that fast dance finale, in which Szigeti’s intense flourishes elaborate on the opening Saint-Saëns-derived Danse Macabre figures. It ends a must-have collaboration.

The Rhapsody was written in 1928 and was a suitable vehicle for Szigeti’s biting and wholly magnificent fiddling. He was not yet afflicted with the tremulous bow arm and inevitable co-ordination problems that were to appear later in the 1940s. Here his terse tonal reserves are entirely appropriate. That said, his playing is even more energised and committed in the live Library of Congress recital that he gave with the composer and which has been preserved; the studio recording sounds that much less uninhibited, so to sample the really real deal you should consult transfers such as those on Vanguard OVC8008 or Hungaroton HCD 12330. The final item is a selection from Mikrokosmos played by the composer over four days in April and May 1940. He plays 32 pieces in all, and they were grouped by matrix into threes - mainly. He recorded two sets of four, one of two and No.144, the ‘Minor Seconds, Major Sevenths’ was housed on a separate matrix of its own given that it lasts over four minutes. These are wonderful artefacts, compressed gems of pianism and touch. No.120 the ‘Fifth Chords’ is especially volatile and vibrant; No.151, the ‘Dances in Bulgarian Rhythm’ comes close to a 52nd Street dive, and the most elusive is that long 144.

The transfers are first class.

David Denton
David's Review Corner, January 2010

The arrival in the United States of the great Hungarian composer, Béla Bartók, would normally have been greeted with considerable excitement, but not in 1940 when he was just part of the flood of refugees. Those who had known him in Europe rallied around and found what work they could so as to provide the basic necessities of life. Recording sessions were set up more out of goodwill than any particular desire by the company, the present material coming from New York sessions in April and May 1940 and are the only examples of his piano playing in the States. Ironically it was for the famous American bandleader and clarinettist. Benny Goodman, that he had composed Contrasts in 1938, and here they are joined by a previous emigré, the Hungarian violinist, Joseph Szigeti. Two conventional classical movements precede a jazzy and energetic finale that offers both Szigeti and Goodman solos for a show of technical brilliance. The First Violin Rhapsody dates from 1928 and is typical of Bartok’s folk inspired compositions, the second movement, Friss, being a jolly dance. Mikrokosmos was intended as a teaching document, the 153 short piano pieces progressing in their difficulty. Bartok plays sixteen starting at number 94, and shows he was a highly capable pianist. I have reviewed and enjoyed all three performances in two previous incarnations, the playing always highly accomplished. The original sound was dry and constricted, the Naxos transfer as good as any and resisting the temptation to make ‘improvements’. At super-budget price it is a desirable historic document.

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