Summer Symphonies: 61 Bartok Concerto for Orchestra

Regular readers will know that I like to stretch the symphonic definition a tad for those works which I think fit the bill. Bartok's big concerto is probably his only quasi-symphonic work to fit my test of "bigger than the sum of it's parts".


Bartok doesn't have much in the catalogue that would count as symphonic.  The early tone poem Kossuth doesn't really hang together in a symphonic sense and the Music of Strings, Percussion and Celesta is a beautiful and deeply fascinating piece similarly in parts but without the requisite drama or contrast. The Concerto for Orchestra builds to a disproportionate climax because of its diverse movements. Bartok baulked at the notion of it being classed a symphony because of the way that the movements were aligned the sections of the orchestra, Cage would probably have laughed at that notion, Stravinsky too.  The distillation of a lifetime in music and a myriad of the composer's styles being aired and the lamentable circumstances of it's composition all stack up to something special here. And you can feel that in very minute of it.


A quick resumé of the timeline is probably helpful to see how this work is bound up in the trajectory of Bartok's final years.  Bartok and his wife left Hungary for the USA as the Nazi's encroached in 1940: they were joined by his son in 1942.  The Bartok's struggled to make a living in America and found living in such an alien culture very difficult. Bela Bartok was quite ill.  He got the commission for the Concerto for Orchestra from the Koussevitsky Foundation in 1943, in 1944 his leukaemia was diagnosed.  He started writing the Concerto in early 1944 and it was premiered in Boston on 1 December 1944.  The work was well received but revised by Bartok in 1945 with a longer ending.  He died on 26 September 1945 in hospital and was buried with only 10 people at his funeral in California however his remains were returned to Hungary for a state funeral in 1988.

There are two things that I think are overlooked when considering this piece.  Firstly, this is modern music it is not yet 75 years old,  it is from a time and place where musical language and structures were getting less and less easy. And yet it is very popular - it was almost immediately successful across the globe.  As such it is a rare commodity.  It was first heard by Proms audiences in 1949 (under Malcolm Sargent) and it was picked by Karajan in 1952, there were many other champions including Solti, Kubelik and Fricsay and became part of  mainstream repertoire of European and American orchestras.  Second, it captures a lost national identity - Hungary was subjugated first by the Nazi's and then Stalin, only to re-appear more recently in it's full glory.  It reflects the angst of emigres in the US during WWII and prefigures a mood of post war darkness and national pride even Stalin couldn't stamp out. It is sad that Bartok didn't live to see his country again.

We might speculate on how structurally it might be a symphony in form. There's a symphonic progress and contrast in the flow of the movements, and there's an over riding sense of unity of language in the themes even though they are stylistically very different.  Fundamentally it drives and it builds and the places that it explores along the way it does so colourfully.


The slow and haunting introduction is typically Bartok - very dramatic but ultimately a dynamic  and when it bursts into full voice it may be the angularity of the melody which catches the unwary listener  but the first three minutes are merely slow introductory material familiar from Beethoven or Haydn in a different language.  When the faster music kicks in, it does so with a inner rhetorical style –. In some cases phrases seem to answer themselves in serial and parallel with great ease.  This is beautiful music in an exotic tongue.  After strings and winds weave a delicate pastoral scene, the brass get a magnificent courtly fugatto.  It is thrilling when done well (Boulez and NYPO brass take no prisoners here). Music goes back to a sense of the pastoral and we might invoke a narrative here but the coda defies it with a whirlwind conclusion. The language throughout is that vivid Hungarian style as distinct and distant as the language of that place.  As exotic and exciting as that ancient empire.


The next movement has the winds and brass leading in pairs.  It is wryly amusing - Scherzo like but with a spareness  borrowed from the neoclassical I think (the Scherzo of Vaughan Williams Eighth symphony does the same trick and Stravinsky's Symphony of Winds turns the idea into a whole piece).  The trio is stately and slight, but scored for brass and side drum.  The third movement is a return to the night music of the introduction - at least at first and the end. This time there's a deal more menace in the strings interjection.  It has - in full voice - some resonance with Bartok's plight - far away from home and wistful and I dare say dwelling on his fate.  It is not no tragic in the same way as the equivalent movement of the Third Concerto. There's a brooding presence there too - a shifting unease, and it ends unresolved.


The fourth movement caused some comment when it appeared that Bartok was parodying the Seventh symphony of Shostakovich.  Latterly it seems that another idea is in play - that Bartok (and Shostakovich) decided both to parody a tune by Franz Lehar.  Frankly I don't buy that coincidence but nor do I think it's much of a parody parody either. This "interrupted intermezzo - is sweet and lyrical lifts the work into something more symphonic as a Minuet and Trio would in a Schubert symphony.


The finale though has often been described as a tour de force and has some of the hallmarks of Bartok's most popular styles. Here the  notion of a concerto is truly explored and the orchestra that can play this well is set fair.  The music bowls along with tremendous energy and gusto, the piquancy and detail of accented themes, complex counterpoint and rhythms make it thrillingly animated.   The great tonal palette used here up put the work up with Bartok's colourful scores in like Duke Bluebeards Castle and the piano concerti.  What's less clear is how I might weave this into a symphonic narrative.  My sense is that the euphoria crowns a narrative exploring much of the light and dark of musical expression.  It is a fantastic release - joyous and luminous.  The whole journey of the piece reaches a very high summit here.   It is in an emotional sense that this work passes into the symphonic canon - greater than the sum of its parts, all the more remarkable given homesickness and illness.


You might think that insufficient, and thereby confine it to abstraction and to non-symphonic form. There aren't many of those in Bartok's output most of his orchestral works are suites of dances or folk melodies.  The one tone poem in his output is the early work Kossuth written in 1903 by the young composer who was heavily enamoured of Richard Strauss.  Bartok met and heard Strauss conduct in Budapest in 1902 where he heard Also Sprach Zarathustra that most literary and least pictorial of Strauss to he poems.  And it's worth pausing to note Bartok the reference to that work in the coda to this breathless last movement  - though the more you listen the more you find echoes of the Strauss in this work.  As the last section bundles us across the finishing line, the three note motif from Zarathustra  comes out in intense bursts across the orchestra.  A great nod to Strauss - who of course outlived Bartok - and a great link to a work on the borders of symphonic expression, Go here this concerto and you'll find much to savour - all served with paprika and sour cream.


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