Sunday, February 23, 2014
Béla Bartók: Concerto for Orchestra/The Miraculous Mandarin/Two Pictures
Béla Bartok (1881-1945) and Franz Liszt (1811-1886) are the best-known composers from Hungary, though they came from very different eras, had varied stylistic concerns, and were dissimilar in other ways.
Bartok came from a town in what is now Romania, but from Hungarian and German parentage, and his father was an amateur musician (working as the head of an agricultural college) while his mother provided him his first piano lessons.
After his father died when Bartok as a boy, his mother took up teaching at Bratislava in what is now Slovakia, bordering Hungary and Austria. Though the young man could have studied in Vienna, the great music center, he chose to go to Budapest to continue his musical education.
In his mid-twenties he began teaching in that city's Academy of Music and soon immersed himself in the folk music of Hungary and nearby areas, including Romania. Because of the remarkable political, social and cultural history of southeastern Europe, including its many years as part of the Ottoman Empire emanating from Turkey, the cross-breeding of music there with antecedents from the Middle East and from Europe allowed Bartok to develop a composing style that reflected those influences. His work included such pieces as "Fifteen Hungarian Peasant Songs" and "Romanian Folk Dances."
This Sony Classics recording under its "Essential Classics" banner was an early purchase, back in the first years of the 90s, for this listener of Bartok's music. It presents orchestral works from very different eras of the composer's career, ranging from the early "Two Pictures from Orchestra" from 1910 to a suite for a dance and pantomime called "The Miraculous Mandarin" from about a decade later to the masterpiece "Concerto for Orchestra" that proved to be one of his last works, dating from 1943, after Bartok fled war-torn Hungary for the United States. The performances by the famed conductor Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra date from 1962 and 1963.
The latter work, spanning about 37 minutes, seems like a contradiction in his titling, but the composer observed that, while a concerto typically highlights a solo instrument with an orchestral accompaniment, the virtuosity of both justify the use of the term. In any case, this five-movement piece has moments of mystery, exoticism, unusual groupings of instruments, vivid emotionalism in the melodies, and compelling tonal colorations and textures.
"The Miraculous Mandarin" begins with a dramatic swirling of sounds from strings and brass and maintains its frenetic tempo and sounds for the first minute and a half in what was then a controversial tale involving a woman forced into prostitution and the attempt of a mandarin to take her away from her pimps before it moves into a different type of dramatic sound, involving what might be car horns and other reflections of an urban environment, leavened with some quieter passages involving woodwinds and then the return of drama reflecting the conflict between the mandarin and the pimps. There is a great richness, a superb sense of dramatic timing, and a fascinating grouping of instrumentation on this remarkable piece.
"Two Pieces" has an affinity for the work of French composer Claude Debussy, in that Bartok scores these two parts, "In Full Flower" and "Village Dance" in ways that employ dreamy melodies and lush backgrounds reminiscent of the influential Debussy's invocation of nature and Impressionistic approaches to sound. With such instruments as harp and celesta, the generous use of tremolo with the stringed instruments and other elements, these works still have a blueprint of Bartok's future use of unusual rhythms, groupings of instruments and sense of dramatic dynamism.
This recording is a nice survey of the long career of one of the great composers of the first half of the 20th century. Sadly, Bartok, who was strongly against the invasion of Hungary by the Nazi regime, fled his native country in October 1940, though his older son by a first wife remained in Hungary and survived the war while the composer, his second wife and their son moved to New York.
He was not particularly appreciated in his new country and he struggled to compose and find work. In 1944, he was diagnosed with leukemia and the disease moved quickly. Still, in his last years he managed to not only complete the popular "Concerto for Orchestra" but also an excellent solo violin sonata for the legendary Yehudi Menuhin and a third piano concerto.
At age 64, in late September 1945, the composer died and only ten persons were present at his funeral. Although he was buried in New York, Bartok's remains were removed to his native Hungary where he received a state funeral in 1988, just before the fall of the Communist regime there. Fortunately, his music is better appreciated in this country than it was during his final years and there is a series of piano works on the budget Naxos label by Hungarian pianist Jenó Jandó that will be highlighted here some day.