Bartok Violin Sonata no. 1, Sz.75/BB 84

performed by David Oistrakh and Sviatoslav Richter, from the recital in the Grand Hall of Moscow Conservatory in 1972


I’d like to say I planned it, but I didn’t. Both of Bartok’s violin sonatas, written within a year or so of each other, were dedicated to Jelly d’Aranyi, the same violinist to whom Ravel’s Tzigane was dedicated, as a commission from her. She was the great niece of Joseph Joachim.

That’s the only real connection to Ravel’s work, but it was one. Like I said, this work slightly predates the Ravel works we discussed last week, but they’re still written within a few years of each other. It’s also noteworthy to mention that, as has been the case with a few firsts and seconds in this series this month, this ‘first sonata’ technically wasn’t. I quote liner notes here from this Naxos recording:

Bartok’s first sonata for violin and piano was written in 1903 and coolly received by Leopold Auer and other members of the jury of the Prix Rubinstein in Paris in 1905. The first numbered and published sonata, the Violin Sonata No.1, in three movements, was written in the last three months of 1921 and dedicated to the Hungarian violinist Jelly d’Aranyi, great-niece of Joachim, who gave the performance of the work with him in London on 24th March 1922, followed by performance in Paris, in both places providing a very significant introduction of his work as a composer.

I’m in no position, as an expert neither on history of Bartok nor music, to speak of this work as it fits into Bartok’s overall career, in the trajectory of his development, but suffice it to say that there are things he’s working with here that were not present in the first quartet from a decade and a half earlier, things like the increased flirting with atonality, even though the composer has, at least at one point, per Naxos, claimed the work to be in C#m.

The L.A. Philharmonic has a page of program notes written by Hugh Macdonald for this work here, and in that article are mentioned “Bartók’s extensive work collecting Hungarian folksong,” as well as “The composers he most admired at that time were Debussy, Stravinsky, and Schoenberg, all of whom left their mark on this music.” This was touched on a bit in the quartet article from Sunday, with the exception of one of those names: Stravinsky. I’m not going to suggest that Bartok’s penchant/talent for intoxicating rhythms stems directly from Stravinsky’s influence, as the folk music Bartok was so infatuated with surely showed signs of interesting and complex meters and rhythms, but it’s a name to consider nonetheless. That statement in the article is tempered, however, by saying that “[the piece] has much more of Bartók’s personal stamp, as if he were testing his own intuition and carving out the style that he perfected in his later works.”

More than one source mentions the gamelan-like opening of the first movement, the flutters and shimmers in the piano, and that this gesture calls Debussy to mind. Naxos says that despite these other influences, the violin part is often “essentially Hungarian,” which we shall see further on. It describes the first movement as “broadly in tripartite sonata-form, with an exposition, a central development and a recapitulation.” That’s not a surprise, really.

The opening does sound like an interesting mash-up (what a wonderfully non-Classical-Music term) of Debussy and Schoenberg. The work sounds so consistently chromatic as to suggest, perhaps, the existence of a /gasp/ twelve-tone row, but no. It’s just very chromatic, and yet, while the opening gesture of the violin, at least to me, sounds nothing short of a distress call, a pained moan, there’s still an expressive tenderness, even if it isn’t a terribly welcoming one. One might not really know what to focus on or listen for in a work like this; in some kind of midpoint between Impressionist expression and atonal modernity, what ‘language’ are we speaking, and what structure is being laid out?

Well, as we read above, there’s a sonata form being built, and while I might not necessarily be able to break it down cleanly, there is enough use of material, be it gestures in the violin, or that opening piano shimmer, to suggest that, as with the string quartet, every gesture, each idea has purpose, there’s no filler here.

Something else we’ll realize as we’re sinking into and absorbing the appassionato of the first movement is the virtuosity of the work. The piano is the first thing to sound in the piece, and it has a special role in the work, at times playing alone, but at most seemingly wholly independently from the soloist, the two players at times seeming to play an interconnected and yet… somehow almost independent pair of sonatas. This isn’t your momma’s Mozart, with a dainty piano in the background to lend support to a pretty violin piece. The violin writing is obviously  extremely virtuosic, like the Ravel last week, seemingly the very essence of the instrument, as if Bartok’s writing with double (triple?) stops and the textures and sounds and all the rest, is veritably wringing out some ‘eau de violon’ for the work. It certainly has a fragrance, a pungent, spirited one, with hints of bergamot, orange, but also a mild bitterness, like the way vanilla both smells and tastes. (That might be the first time I’ve felt a food or smell reference was perfectly suited to a piece of music. Maybe it isn’t.)

The first movement is intense in a kind of uneasy atmosphere, but despite how unsettling the first movement might be, there’s actually plenty of robust, vivid texture and detail in which to relish. A sort of underdeveloped ‘analysis’ more akin to trying to classify and label a piece like this could do it less than justice, trying to find out what it is and how to describe it, as I perhaps have done, but don’t. There’s no better way to understand a piece like this than to hear it. The first movement finishes not with an explosion of sound or violence, but with a quiet drifting away of the violin, who speaks first in the opening of the adagio. It’s solitary, lyrical, and the piano enters quietly, almost timidly. Naxos says that the second movement “is ternary in structure with the two elements of the first section re-appearing in the third, framing a central section that makes use of two other elements.” This first section is marked by broader, softer, and often solo passages. It’s easy to hear a sudden change. Rhythms get sharper, more accented, and the piano begins playing in more spirited double stops. It’s a bit of a slow build, as both instruments come to life in the center portion of the movement. This vibrance and energy doesn’t last; generally, the lines of this movement are long, powerful, and even a bit strained, the piano sounding distant and warm. Pensive.

Hold on to your hats, though, because the finale is where it all comes to life. Much like the first string quartet’s build to a vibrant, folk-inspired finale, this third movement is full of pent-up energy that feels like it finally can’t be held in any longer. The instruments feel at times like they’ve finally crossed paths, falling into step as the piano hammers out the rhythm to which the violin dances and sings. Folksy fireworks, and again tons of virtuosity. It’s pungent, almost acerbic at times, but thrilling. There are some passages where piano has cadenza-like passages while the violin plucks out pizzicato chords. The finale is again the highlight of the work, as if something this intense demanded to have that amount of buildup and introduction.

The piano has some really monstrous passages in that percussive, hammering style that we hear in his piano concertos, none of which were yet written at this time, a kind of driving, intoxicating power behind the piano, used in a way unique from anyone else who’d written for the instrument.

If the first two movements were a bit challenging for you, you’ll find something to latch onto in the third. I keep using the word ‘intoxicating’ but I can’t think of a better one. The stuff that shows up in the finale is the kind of rhythm and syncopation and just musical  writing that kind of drills itself into your head and doesn’t let go. There’s all the stuff you’d want from any other music: drama, contrast, excitement, highs and lows, plenty of fireworks. I know I’m oversimplifying this, but I personally feel like a piece like this might be a bit difficult to approach, to warm up to, for some people. It’s an intense work in a unique idiom that might seem exotic and strange to some, like a food you’ve never tasted before (cinnamon in a savory dish, like Moroccan food, with lots of flavor and fragrance), but once you wrap your head around it, it’s incredible.

As for the ambiguous and commanding finish before rapturous applause, Naxos says it “ends, indeed, with a piano chord that combines C sharp major and C sharp minor, to which the violin adds the note B, the seventh.” That’s not a sound that Brahms would have known, but it seems perfectly at home here.

The one thing that I think some people (me included) might want is some kind of program note to the work, an indication of “what was the composer trying to say?” with this work. As for Ravel, his sonata seemed a perfectly musical expression, pitting classicism against blues with an exciting finale. Tzigane was a straightforward show of virtuosity in a very distinct idiom. But what about this work? To my ear it sounds at turns traumatic, melancholy, bordering even at moments on a pained anger, but we finish with a festive finale, albeit maybe still a dark one. It might be an amateur, silly question, but is there something to be learned or expressed from a work like this besides sheer well-written music? I’m not sure.

This is only the third piece of Bartok’s that we’ve discussed in all the history of the blog, but from the string quartet to here, I hope it’s obvious the direction he headed, a decade and a half after the quartet, with the work showing more personality, more unmistakable Bartok-ness, and increased focus on folk rhythms.

That’s the best I can do with this piece, y’all. It comes at a midpoint between the quartet and the work we’ll discuss on Thursday, so stay tuned for one of the latest works in Bartok’s output.

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