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Bela Bartok (1881 - 1945)


Concerto for Orchestra
1. Introduction : Andante non troppo; Allegra vivace
2. Games (Presentation) of the Couples Allegretto scherzando
3. Elegy Andante non troppo
4. Interrupted Intermezzo Allegretto
5. Finale Pesante; Presto

Bartok's life was a difficult one, since he loved his homeland very much, but saw it torn apart after the First World War, and then had to emigrate to the USA to avoid the rise of the Nazis. He spent many years as a young man with his compatriot Zoltan Kodaly recording folk music from the various ethic groups in central Europe , and then became a successful concert pianist as well as a composer. In consequence his music is often pianistic – which for Bartok means percussive – and deeply infused with the spirit of the folk music he studied.

Bartok's six mature concertos are all quite late works, written between 1926 and his death in 1945 aged 65. Three of the concertos are for piano, one for violin, one (unfinished at his death) for viola, and this one is “for orchestra”. The concerto for orchestra was commissioned by Serge Koussevitsky, who also commissioned Britten's Peter Grimes , and is exactly contemporary with Britten's opera, being written in 1943-44 and first performed by Koussevitsky and the Boston Symphony Orchestra in December 1944.

It is a “concerto for orchestra” rather than a symphony for two reasons. While the piece is full of catchy (if not always easy to sing!) tunes, they are not developed symphonically, but presented and chopped around playfully. And he treats the various instruments in turn as soloists, either alone or in family groups, rather like a baroque concerto grosso. This is why the work is altogether surprisingly approachable for a composer of such formidable intellect as Bela Bartok.

The work is in his favourite five movement “arch” form, of which the key stone is the central slow movement entitled Elegy. This is often called “night music”, though whether it is the night of the natural world or the “dark night of the soul” is hard to say. To me it embodies both. Like much of the work it is based on the interval of the fourth, and the climax at the centre is based on the main theme of the slow introduction to the first movement.

It is framed by two lighter movements. The second movement is a “game of couples”, in which pairs of woodwind and trumpets take turns to play a chirpy tune in close harmony. After a quirky side drum solo the bassoons lead off in 6ths (i.e. the same tune played 6 notes apart) followed by the oboes in 3rds, the clarinets in 7ths, the flutes on 5ths, and the trumpets only two notes apart. Notice that none are in fourths, the main interval of the whole piece.

The fourth movement , intermezzo, is also lighter. After a four note fanfare the oboe presents a theme in very irregular rhythm, which emphasises the interval of the augmented 4th Later the violas give us a gentler theme, though still in a limping irregular rhythm. The interplay of these two is interrupted by a parody of a tune from Shostakovich's 7 th symphony, the Leningrad , which is greeted by vulgar derision by the rest of the orchestra. (The Leningrad symphony was widely admired, though for morale-boosting war effort reasons rather than musical ones, and clearly not by Bartok for any reasons!)

The outer movements are the bases of the arch, and are more substantial. The slow introduction to the first movement is built up from overlapping fourths and gradually gropes its way towards the light. The allegro that it breaks into has two main themes, the first in a played on the violins punctuated by irregular chords, the second a more regular tune first played by the trombone. These two tunes are chopped up, played in canon, turned upside-down, and reassembled in different ways in an exhilarating virtuoso display of the composer's skill.

The finale is if anything even more brilliant than the first, being in a regular two-in-a-bar rhythm but very quick. The main tunes bear a close resemblance to the tunes in the first movement, obvious on the printed page, but subtle on the ear. Like the first movement, the themes are dissected and reassembled with great brilliance, and towards the end it accelerates further with the strings playing very fast indeed, very quietly and with a slightly scratchy sound which is intentional! The final pages are, I hope, breathtaking!

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