Bela Bartók (25.03.1981 – 26.09.1945) was a composer and pianist. He ranks alongside Liszt among the great Hungarian composers and was one of the most influential composers of the twentieth century. Bartók was strongly opposed to the Nazis and Hungary’s siding with Germany. After the Nazis came to power in the early 1930s, Bartók refused to give concerts in Germany and in 1940 reluctantly emigrated to the U.S. settling in New York City after having arrived via a steamer from Lisbon.
Bartók’s main influences were the music Liszt and Wagner but it was his collection of the folk music of Hungary and Romania, which he made with Kódaly, that most influenced his own compositions¹ His most famous works include the Concerto for Orchestra, BB 123, Sz.116, his Music for Strings, Percussion & Celesta, BB 114, Sz. 106, the piano concertos, his Six Romanian Folk Dances and the Violin Concerto No. 2, Sz 112. His six String Quartets are widely regarded as the twentieth-century masterpieces of the form.
The Concerto for Orchestra was written in the early 1940s and has five movements, lasting just under forty minutes:
I. Introduzione: Andante non troppo
II. Presentando le coppie: Allegro scherzando
III. Elegia: Andante non troppo
IV. Intermezzo Interrotto: Allegretto
V. Finale: Pesante — Presto
The first movement begins mysteriously with a theme in the low strings accompanied by whispering violin tremolandos after which various instrumental groups are added before we get a bright theme introduced by the violins. A second theme is introduced by a solo trombone. The second movememt, “Game of Pairs” features pairs of instruments : bassoons, oboes, clarinets, flutes and finally trumpets. The middle section is given over to the brass instruments. The agitated third movement was described by Bartok as a death song. The fourth movement contains a raucous parody of a theme from Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 7 in C major, Op. 60.² The finale is launched with a fanfare on the horns and a flurry of strings. This is a superb culmination to one of the greatest orchestral works of the twentieth century.
Our favourite recording of the work is conducted by Iván Fischer with the Budapest Festival Orchestra on Philips. It is available as a download from Presto Classical or for those who prefer CDs it is part of a fine three disc set of Bartok’s orchestral music. If you only want a single CD then we can strongly recommend Pierre Boulez conducting the Chicago Symphony Orchestra which can be purchased from Presto Classical.
Stream Fischer’s performance on Spotify.
¹ These influences are most readily apparent in his Six Romanian Folk Dances and the Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta.
² Bartók thought Shostakovich was patriotic and that this was misplaced.