Bela Bartok: Concerto for Orchestra, Sz. 166

This article has been marked as in need of a revisit. That’s where I feel like I didn’t do the piece justice or have more to say (usually because I didn’t know it nearly well enough or didn’t have the right perspective). I’ll keep the original article for posterity, but publish a new version that will eventually be linked here for my new take on it.

performed by the Cleveland Orchestra under Christoph von Dohnányi

AND NOW for something completely different.

I was thinking of listening to the Grieg piano concerto, which I will be hearing Ms. Valentina Lisitsa her very self perform this weekend (very much looking forward to that!) The program is called “Tales from the North”… All Northern European composers: Grieg, Pärt, Nielsen, and maybe someone else. Anyway, I will address that later.

Keeping only with symphonies for now makes it feel more like I’m comparing apples to apples, even though I’m not actually comparing. Concerti are entirely different beings than symphonies, but mayhaps in some ways easier to address since there’s a definite focus or center to the piece and one knows where to “look” while listening, what to listen for. Or something. Also, I won’t be able to say much about technique or performance of the soloist, at most with a piano concerto, but even then, I can’t say much to critique it, much less a violin or cello concerto. Anyway…

I recently got my hands on this recording and thought before changing formats completely, we could do one of the symphonic pieces that is not called a symphony pretty much only because Bartok didn’t wanna. He features prominently the individual sections and everyone gets to be a virtuoso. The first and last movements still follow sonata form, so… It’s a symphony in disguise. Concerto for Orchestra does sound contradictingly absurd, but it definitely works….

My first exposure to Bartok was his three piano concerti, which I am not super familiar with, but do recall not particularly enjoying. They were all clearly 20th century modern works, and the piano is used far more percussively than in anything else I’ve heard (imagine what it would have been like for Horowitz to play one of these. I don’t believe he ever did.) I remember not particularly enjoying the orchestration or melodies; it just didn’t jive for me. I later sat front row to hear the Royal Philharmonia Orchestra under Charles Dutoit here in Taipei perform The Miraculous Mandarin, and I remember not disliking it. It was nice.

This, however, is an entirely different story, and I’m surprised it’s the same composer. It’s fantastic.

I started the first movement at home on my computer and I could barely hear it for the first 30 seconds at least. I later used headphones, and could hear the rich, low beginning of the piece in Bartók’s “night music” style, that while understated and not a clashing, bombastic opening is still dramatic and gripping and beautiful. It’s a fantastic start to this piece, and really sets the stage for everything that comes after it.

This continues for a few minutes, until the trumpets (muted?) enter. The timpani seems to act as a heartbeat at a few critical points throughout the piece. In fact, this piece does seem to have lots of percussion punctuating critical points of the piece. There are a few climactic moments among the moody, dramatic “introduzione”, and it makes the piece feel like a play, introducing different characters on a stage. The piece ends abruptly and the second movement begins with a snare drum.

“Giuoco delle coppie” means “game of pairs,” but was originally titled “presentando le coppie”, ‘presentation of the couples,’ and we get more a feel of characters playing in a drama, maybe not so much a game, but a stage presentation, and this, I feel is the most obvious expression of the Concerto idea. Bassoons enter first, then oboes, then clarinets, flutes, then trumpets. Snare drum punctuates the end of this first group, and it seems to start over again. I love this movement.

The third movement begins and we are back to the setting of the first movement again, with gorgeous oboes and flutes. It’s a slow movement, and we have some familiar themes that show up here again.

The fourth movement is also wonderful fun. There are lots of changing time signatures with themes based on some operetta or other. It has a wonderful flowing melody, but there’s this spurt of glissandos in the middle, first by woodwinds, then loud trombones, then woodwinds again. The whole thing sounds circusy and comical, and we hop back to the two themes from earlier. The timpani show up again here prominently.

The fifth movement, at presto, is busy and energetic. There is a constant flurry of notes going in the background, propelling the rest of this movement. More great bassoon here, clarinet, bass clarinet and lots of percussion.

I really enjoyed this, to my surprise. It reminds me for some reason of Messiaen’s Turangalîla-Symphonie, with the exception that I like this one better, and it has no Ondes Martenot. It sounds like a conversation between all the sections, as it’s a concerto for entire sections, not really soloists, as far as I can tell. It is generally warm and inviting and just kinda makes me happy. There’s a certain simplicity to the structure that makes it more accessible as well, which is nice.

Interestingly, this piece was a commission from Serge Koussivitzky, a guy I’m starting to like more and more. Bartok was already very ill, diagnosed with leukemia, and not pleased with his move to America to escape WWII and as a result, not composing a lot. After this commission, he was in better spirits (and doing better financially) It was a huge success, and led to a number of other commissions that kept him busy until his death less than two years later, including a sonata for solo violin. His third piano concerto, a birthday gift to his wife, was almost finished when he died.

I find the stories and circumstances behind pieces just as interesting (and sometimes more interesting than, depending on the piece) as the music itself.

I wanted to mention this in the Dvorak post, but…. The serendipity of music fascinates me too. It’s not just with music, but there are all sorts of stories of scores lost for decades and only found much later. How much other great music has been lost before (or even after, if possible) publication? What did we miss out on from the great composers of the past few centuries, not to mention composers who never did get their big break? What is gone forever? And will this disappearing nature of great works get better or worse with technology? One would think it would be more reliable (and it arguably would with the ease of sharing and distribution, meaning there are likely to be multiple [sometimes thousands] of copies of works instead of only one), but… Think of this. With a document on my computer (assuming I’m writing like I do in Finale or something) and not on actual paper and pencil at a piano (which I’m not skilled enough for in penmanship or musicality), even though I have saved a file, aside from a few changed states on a disc, almost nothing in the real world changes. There exists no hard copy of that work, and if my computer died or were stolen or fried, that piece is gone. What else will we miss in the future? That would be a negative way to end this review of a piece I thoroughly enjoyed, so think of it this way next time you listen to one of your favorites: “I’m really glad this one made it.”


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