Reconsidering Bartók: The Orchestral Works

by Walter Simmons

BARTÓK: Kossuth. Four Pieces for OrchestraBudapest Symphony Orchestra (in Kossuth) and Budapest Philharmonic Orchestra (in Four Pieces) conducted by Arpad Joó. SEFEL SEFD-5005 (digital), produced by Brian Culverhouse.

BARTÓK: Suite No. 1. Two Portraits.Budapest Symphony Orchestra conducted by Arpad Joó. SEFEL SEFD-5006 (digital), produced by Brian Culverhouse.

BARTÓK: Suite No. 2. Two PicturesBudapest Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Arpad Joó. SEFEL SEFD-5007 (digital), produced by Brian Culverhouse.

BARTÓK: Miraculous Mandarin– Suite. Dance Suite. Budapest Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Arpad Joó. SEFEL SEFD-5008 (digital), produced by Brian Culverhouse.

BARTÓK: Concerto for OrchestraBudapest Symphony Orchestra conducted by Arpad Joó. SEFELSEFD-5009 (digital), produced by Brian Culverhouse.

BARTÓK: Rhapsody for Piano and OrchestraTwo Portraits. Dance Suite. Concertos Nos. 1-3 for Piano and Orchestra. Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celeste. Concerto No. 2 for Violin and Orchestra. Divertimento for String OrchestraConcerto for OrchestraGéza Anda, piano. Tibor Varga, violin; Berlin Radio Orchestra (in Concerto for Orchestraand works with piano); RIAS Symiphony Orchestra Berlin (in Portraits, Music, Divertimento, Dance Suite); Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra (in Violin Concerto) conductedby Ferenc Fric­say. DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 2740 233 (five discs), produced by Wolfgang Lohse and Otto Gerdes.

The two sets under consideration here are but a few of the many recordings issued in honor of the 100th anniversary of Bela Bartók’s birth. The first of the two sets is an ambitious group of releases sponsored by Joseph Sefel, a Hungarian businessman now living in Canada. A sizable portion of Bartók’s orchestral music is included on these deluxe digital re­cordings, in performances conducted by Arpad Joó. Joó (pronounced like you), who is in his early 30s, was also born in Hungary, and now conducts the Calgary Philharmonic in Canada. Messrs. Sefel and Joó returned to their native land to record these works with Hungary’s two leading orchestras.

The DG set is a reissue of 10 performances done between the years 1951 and 1960 under the direction of Ferenc Fricsay, the Hungarian conductor who pursued a distin­guished career in Berlin until his premature death in 1963, when he was 49. Fricsay was a staunch proponent of Bartók’s music, as is reflected both in his sympathetic and perceptive commentary included with the set and in the performances themselves, which exhibit the conviction of one who has confidence in the music and in his own ability to project its mean­ing. These performances are limited only by the deficiencies of the respective orchestras and by the state of recording technology at the time—all are monaural except the four works for piano and orchestra.

The Sefel set offers an unusual emphasis on music written during the years 1903-05, a period that precedes any of Bartók’s works that are generally well-known. Several works of considerable length and ambition date from this time, however: the patriotic symphonic poem Kossuth (1903) and the two Suites for orchestra (composed mostly in 1905). Included on Fricsay’s set is the Rhapsodyfor piano and orchestra, which also dates from this period (1904). Those unfamiliar with any of these works are likely to be quite surprised by their adherence to a conventional 19th-century idiom, in which a chief ingredient is the ersatz Hungarian gypsy style familiar from Liszt and Brahms, inflated by a florid instrumental style borrowed from Strauss. Unlike the early works of many well-known composers, these pieces have little distinctive merit in their own right.

Kossuth, Bartók’s first completed orchestral work, was written to commemorate-a re­vered Hungarian revolutionary leader. The work brought tremendous success to the young composer—more for nationalistic than for musical reasons. Today Kossuth retains a certain historical interest, and its episodic succession of heroic and tragic bombast is not more or less effective than dozens of other commemorative pieces of this kind. There are some curi­ous moments suggestive of the opening of Mahler’s Third Symphony, some attractive har­monic touches, and some credible excitement. But the work is basically on the order of the 1812 Overture.

Kossuth is also available as part of Hungaroton’s complete Bartók series, in a perfor­mance featuring György Lehel and the Budapest Symphony Orchestra (LPX 11517)—the same orchestra that maestro Joó leads on the new Sefel recording. The latter is vastly superior in every way: the orchestra, while still not of truly virtuoso caliber, has improved greatly over the intervening years; Joó offers a much tauter, more dynamic interpretation, which supports the structure of the work considerably; and there is simply no comparison between the rather drab Hungaroton recording and the stunning sonics of the new Sefel recording.

The Rhapsody for piano and orchestra is a far less interesting piece altogether— a seemingly interminable stream of tedious prattling next to which Liszt’s Hungarian Rhap­sodies appear to be masterpieces of structure. Neither Anda nor Fricsay can be held responsible. 

The Suite No. 1 for orchestra is essentially a serenade, akin to the Brahms orchestral serenades: lightweight, generally lyrical or dance-like, with relaxed, prolix, and digressive formal attitudes. The listener with modest expectations may find the Suite No. 1, with its exo­tic touches, somewhat refreshing as background music. But there is no denying its predo­minantly banal content. The Suite No. 2 is darker, more introspective, and generally more ambitious than its predecessor. Interestingly, during the time of its composition, a period elapsed during which the composer made several discoveries that were to exert a consider­able influence on his music: one concerned the music of Debussy, and the other, a more au­thentic form of Hungarian folk music. These influences began to appear in the final move­ment of the Second Suite. For many years, Bartók continued to revise the work, whose hybrid style might be mentioned as an interesting analogue to Schoenberg’s contemporaneous String Quartet No. 2. At one point Bartók transformed the work into the Suite for Two Pianos; the final orchestral version was made in 1943. As it stands, the Suite No. 2does not show its mixed ancestry that obviously. Most noticeable in the fourth movement is a tightening of the structural flabbiness that had weakened all of Bartók’s music thus far. Joó’s performances of these suites are quite good—again, far superior to the Hungaroton recordings. The weakest aspect of the Hungarian orchestras is their woodwind playing: tone quality tends to be wildly uncontrolled. At times this is quite obtrusive on the Hungaroton recordings, but on the new Sefel releases it is not noticeable very often. Of course, London 7120 offers Antal Dorati leading the Detroit Symphony in a fine performance of the Suite No. 1, backed by the Two Pictures.

The Two Portraits(1907) represent another stage in Bartók’s development, in which he shed the overinflated Germanic rhetoric in favor of a more poignant, intimate type of expres­sion. This is also an early example of the composer’s effort to reconcile the perennial conflict between unity and diversity—an issue that Bartók was never able to resolve successfully in his abstract works. In Two Portraitsthe problem is solved through the juxtaposition of two diametrically opposed treatments (“Ideal” and “Grotesque”) of one theme. Here this tactic is quite successful, despite the apparent absence of balance between the two sections. In the first, a lyrical statement gradually soars to a gorgeous apotheosis that is justly responsible for its popularity with listeners who “hate modern music.” The second, while far less imposing, has a raucous brilliance of admirable brevity.
The Two Pictures and Four Pieces (and also Bluebeard’s Castle), written during 1910-­1912, carry this development further. Some listeners find this to be Bartók’s most rewarding period, although many commentators dismiss these works as written in the shadow of De­bussy. However, with greater familiarity their own very personal language is revealed—a lan­guage that has been touched by Debussy, perhaps, but one that is far apart psychologically, dramatically, ethnically, and even harmonically. Bartók seemed to be developing a personal expressive vehicle infused with the inflections of Eastern European melos, but capable of achieving a truly universal vision. The Two Picturesare again built on the principle of com­plementary structure, but here the interrelationships between the two sections are more complex. The first, “In Full Flower,” belies its title, evoking the same haunting visage of gloom and desolation that permeates Bluebeard’s Castle. The second, “Village Dance,” suggests a Rumanian folk dance, elaborated through the use of classical forms. Cross references between the two help to unite the sections, but the question arises: “Why do these two sections belong together?” Nevertheless, the piece succeeds by virtue of its brevity and modesty of aspiration.

In Four Pieces for Orchestra Bartók pursued his preoccupation with the highly evoca­tive, yet nominally abstract, brief symphonic poem. The dark mood of despair still pervades, at times giving way to the demoniacal. But the matter of balance is again a problem. Without an obvious structural aid, the attempt at consistency leads to monotony. The orchestration (not completed until 1921) is expert, the harmonic palette is highly nuanced, and the mood is conveyed with great skill. But the whole is somehow less than the sum of its parts. Moreover, the music suffers for want of a melodic focus, without which it is only background music in search of a scene to accompany. In fact, one begins to suspect that it was Bartók’s own rec­ognition of his inability to develop this mainstream musical language in an autonomous, abstract direction that led him to rely so extensively on the phraseology of folk music for his thematic source material. It is no coincidence that Bluebeard’s Castle, The Wooden Prince, and The Miraculous Mandarin—three stage works with their own structural coherence—are the most successful works from this period—and, indeed, among the most fully realized works of his entire career.

Joó’s performance of the Two Portraits on Sefel is excellent, and beautifully recorded. Unfortunately, Hungaroton LPX-1302, which contains the ideal grouping of Two Portraits, Two Pictures, and Four Pieces on one disc, offers less refined performances and suffers from a noticeable wow on one side. The Joó performances of the Two Pictures and Four Pieces are also quite good, if a trifle sluggish and heavy-footed in the fast sections. It is a pity that Sefel did not group these three key works on one disc. Fricsay’s 1952 performance of the Two Portraits is good, if a bit overly melodramatic. The most compelling f performance of the Two Pictures, however, can be found on DG 2E31 269, together with a superb performance of the Concerto for Orchestra, played by the Berlin Philharmonic under the direction of Lorin Maazel.

There is no shortage of stunning recordings of the Miraculous Mandarin. Although its primitive passions, gruesome brutality, and even more literal connections suggested it as Bartók’s answer to Le Sacre, it has developed a great appeal of its own over the years. In fact, like Le Sacre, the score exploits the propulsive rhythmic drive and brittle orchestral bril­liance that tend to constitute an orchestral showpiece for the late-20th-century listener. Hence the number of recordings of this exciting ballet and the suite drawn from it. However, what with two fine versions of the complete ballet currently available—Boulez’s (CBS M­31368) and Dorati’s (Mercury 77012)—recordings of the suite, which omits some important music, are of questionable value. Nevertheless, Joó does provide a thrilling reading of the suite—as does Skrowaczewski, on the budget-priced Candide 31097. In fact, as fine as Dorati’s and Boulez’s versions are, neither has quite the kinetic impact of these two recordings of the suite.

In the Dance Suite of 1923, the folk dance element is wholly to the fore. In a sense, its sophisticated formal treatment of folk-style materials represents a further development of the “Village Dance” from the Two Pictures. What preserves its aesthetic integrity from the incon­gruities of later works is the primacy granted to the natural spontaneity of the material. Hence, its entertaining, if impersonal, quality is not at odds with its structure. In fact, its generous thematic material is so cleverly integrated that there are none of the jarringly obvious transitional schemes usually endemic to what is essentially a folk rhapsody. No other such work achieves this sophistication without sacrificing the natural exuberance of its material. But what is sacrificed is the element of personal vision, which, though beside the point in the Dance Suite, is a significant loss in later, more ambitious works.

Again, it is not surprising to encounter many stunning renditions of a piece like this. As one might expect, Sir Georg Solti offers the most thrilling performance of the Dance Suite, as its self-evident virtues are not jeopardized by Solti’s utter mindlessness as an interpreter, and the brilliant orchestral fireworks he generates are well captured on London’s digital pro­duction (LDR-71036). There is simply no competition for a recording like this, and as hard as Joó tries to achieve the same sort of sizzling effect, the Budapest Philharmonic simply can­not play with the razor-sharp precision of the Chicago Symphony. Skrowaczewski and Fric­say also offer well-conceived, more thoughtful performances, without sacrificing the neces­sary excitement, but their respective orchestras, the Minnesota and, to a greater extent, the RIAS Orchestra of Berlin, are forced to scramble, in trying to keep up. Again, both Boulez and Dorati are surprisingly restrained—a bit inappropriate for this piece. Yet these are all fine performances—the least of them is still a pleasure.

In Bartók’s three piano concertos and the Second Violin Concerto, the conflicting de­mands implicit in the terse directness of folk-style material, the prolonged, sophisticated or­namentation of the concerto format, and the composer’s desire to write “important” music undermine each other, with very uninteresting results. In these works, aggressive virtuosity and an exotic dialect serve as smoke-screens to conceal the absence of any truly substantial content and a retreat from the degree of personal artistic commitment suggested during the 1910s. Amidst the empty activity of these concertos, even the much-vaunted “night music” movements appear to have more significance than they really do. Again, they are mere backgrounds, in need of a foreground, and soon become tiresome. The Concerto No. 3 is a pallid reiteration of the kind of piece Bartók had done many times before. Although many lis­teners seem to feel otherwise, I find its restraint more symptomatic of exhausted creativity than of serenity and reconciliation.

Far more successful in this vein is the 1939 Divertimento for string orchestra, in which the folk spirit and the humanistic undertones are somewhat better balanced and, like the Dance Suite, united within more modest pretensions. Fricsay offers a warmly sympathetic performance, presenting the work in a most advantageous light.

Géza Anda’s 1959-60 performances of the piano concertos, while adequate, have been surpassed by more recent entries. Anda fares best with the Third Concerto, where he seems better suited to its suaveness and gentility. But he fails to supply the brittle, almost mechani­cal power that the first two concertos require. A recording that captures the spirit of these works features Maurizio Pollini with the Chicago Symphony under Abbado on DG 2530 901. Vladimir Ashkenazy’s recording of the Concertos Nos. 2 and 3 with the London Philharmonic under Solti on London 7167 admirably portrays their better qualities.

Tibor Varga’s recording of the Violin Concerto No. 2 is one of the least satisfactory efforts of the Fricsay set. The performance itself is not bad, but it is unrefined, with quite a few rough edges. Worse, though, is a boosting of the high frequencies of this 1951 recording so that the result is strident and unnatural.

Unfortunately, limitations of space prevent a sufficiently elaborate, balanced discussion of the Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celeste and the Concerto for Orchestra.However, a key issue is Bartók’s difficulty in achieving sufficient variety and contrast without producing such a heterogeneous result that an underlying unity of spirit is lost. Of course, some struc­tures are looser and less demanding than others, and no work need reflect more discipline than is dictated by its own self-definition. In other words, suites and serenades may tolerate more heterogeneity than sonatas and symphonies. But it is more than simply a matter of nomenclature: the sound of the work itself communicates how it is to be taken. But both the Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celeste and the Concerto for Orchestra promise more than they deliver, with the result that neither achieves a clear definition of its artistic purpose. This is partly because Bartók relied too heavily on the folk ethos to provide him with material he could not supply himself, and these sources were more limited than he realized. This is a more serious problem in the Music than in the Concerto, which is undeniably successful as an orchestral tour de force. But these works, regarded throughout the music establishment as “masterpieces,” ought to be held accountable to the highest criteria.

Fricsay, in his program notes, makes a valiant effort to provide a convincing programmatic raison d’être for the Concerto for Orchestra. His conviction is appealing, and reflected also in his intensely communicative performances of this work and the Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celeste. Those interested in supplementary performances of these works may be drawn to these virtues, in spite of orchestral playing that is decidedly unimpressive.

Of the many available recordings of the Concerto for Orchestra, two loom as superior: One is the venerable performance by Fritz Reiner and the Chicago Symphony, still available on RCA AGL1-2909. This interpretation has a straightforward vigor and vitality missed by many others who try to read more into the work than there is. The other preferred recording is Lorin Maazel’s recent release with the Berlin Philharmonic, mentioned earlier in connection with the Two Pictures. While the first movement is a bit fussy and studied, the remainder of the performance displays a disciplined flexibility that permits an unusually intelligent, sensi­tive interpretation. Moreover, the Berlin Philharmonic plays with great polish and refinement, and is given a brilliant showcase by DG’s engineers. In this company, Arpad Joó’s effort with the Budapest Symphony may be viewed as a nice try. To put it bluntly, the Concerto for Orchestra is primarily a showpiece for a virtuoso ensemble, which the Budapest Symphony is not. Thus, despite its shattering climaxes, attempts at fast tempos, and appropriate vigor, this is one of those cases in which there is no need to settle for second-best. To comment briefly on some of the other notable performances: Szell/Cleveland is bafflingly uneven, with some meticulous moments and some surprising disappointments, not to mention the notori­ous cut in the fifth movement; Skrowaczewski/Minnesota is uncharacteristically dull, stolid, and perfunctory; Boulez/New York is excellent, but too expansive and reflective during the first two movements; Solti/Chicago is woodenly and insensitively interpreted, but brilliantly played and stunningly recorded.

The discs in the imposing new Sefel set are lavishly packaged in sturdily reinforced jac­kets. Unfortunately, the effort expended in creating a truly patrician production is somewhat undermined by a few minor but annoying commercial gaucheries. One is the use of the slo­gan “Bartók Perfected” as a caption for the series, which is ludicrous and offensive; second are the awkward and confused program notes, which appear to have been compiled by someone not fluent in either English or music; and finally, there is the total absence of a single picture of Bartók himself, although the jackets are adorned copiously with a series of pre­cious full-color poses of Arpad Joó. But, in general, the performances are laudable and beautifully-recorded. Surfaces on this set and the DG set were impeccable.

The late Alexander Tcherepnin is said to have remarked that although Bartók was a sorely underrated composer during his own lifetime, he became a greatly overrated one after his death. The almost universal respect that Bartók has been accorded during the past three and a half decades among a lay and professional public barely familiar with the body of his output is largely a reflection of the musical community’s willingness to simplify reality into the polarized extremes of “greatness” and “worthlessness.” In this they have been aided by a powerful and surprisingly large generation of Hungarian musicians, unembarrassed by ethnic pride. A couple of works with crowd-pleasing qualities have spread his name to the general public.

But I mean no great disparagement of Bartók. This phenomenon reveals more about the public and its need for easy absolutes than it does about Barkók. He was a fine composer who produced many outstanding works, and a few great ones as well. But he also wrote much mediocre music, and some of his less-esteemed contemporaries wrote better music. The wholesale canonization of composers entails much distortion, oversimplification, and downright white-washing and serves no one concerned with understanding and preserving what is valuable in our musical life.