The contrast between the musical language of Rachmaninov and that of his contemporary Bartók is striking. The one firmly in the full “romantic” sonata-form-based mode, the other pushing those formal boundaries forward and absorbing the influences of the folk music he collected and studied so intently. Indeed, he himself said: “The study of all this peasant music…opened the door to the former tyranny of the major and minor systems” and “The right type of peasant music is most varied and perfect in its forms…and a composer in search of new ways cannot be led by a better master.” There is an excellent outline of the importance of folk music to Bartók on the Library of Congress blog https://blogs.loc.gov/nls-music-notes/2018/09/bla-bartk-and-the-importance-of-folk-music/. But I digress…where to start?
Why not with his Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta? [M319.d.2.198] The work was composed in 1936 and its four movements are built on the same basic theme. The third movement, an adagio, follows an ABCBA format thematically (an approach which Bartók often used). As Paul Griffiths writes in his sleeve note to the recording by the Berlin Phil and Karajan:
“This is one of Bartók’s nocturnes, marked by long pedal points, melodies of insect [great description, SW] dimensions and fringe sonorities: glissandos and long trills in timpani and strings, an icy doubling of high solo violins and celesta, or tuned percussion in hazy washes or brittle chords. The range of effects is continued from Bartók’s recent quartets [the fifth was composed in 1934]; indeed, the whole work can be heard as an amplified quartet, with the strings multiplied a dozenfold and their percussive sounds actualized in the presence of timpani, key type instruments (piano, celesta, xylophone, harp) and noise-makers (drums, cymbals, tam-tam). Oddly the celesta has no special function, except to aid the euphony of the title.”
Here’s Leonard Bernstein with the NYPO in 1961. The movement begins at about 16:15 in:
No consideration of Bartók’s slow moments could possibly be complete without one from his string quartets. Along with those of Beethoven, they mark the various stages of his composing life (and indeed might also be regarded as picking up where Beethoven left off and are certainly one of the greatest bodies of work in the quartet literature). His Fifth Quartet [M319.d.2.18] composed in 1934 and commissioned by Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge, provides us with not one, but two slow movements, displaying his love of the palindrome – that ABCBA format – once again. The first of these, an Adagio, is gripping in its intensity as a rich chorale-like melody evolves in the lower three instruments in a kind of dialogue with the first fiddle’s halting melodic responses. The sense of stillness pervading the whole movement is heart-stopping. Here is the Doric in splendid form at the Wigmore Hall in April 2019. It begins at about the 9-minute mark. But do listen to the whole work, it is utterly absorbing.
Let’s turn now to the Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion [M319.d.2.12]: the work, commissioned by the Basel branch of the ISCM, was written in 1937 with Bartók and his second wife Ditta in mind as the pianists and was given its first performance by them both in January 1938. The piano is, of course, essentially a percussion instrument and Bartók explored this to the full in the work. He also provided very clear instructions for the two percussionists as to what kind of sticks they should use and where the on instrument, whether it be drums, tam-tam, xylophone, triangle or cymbals. What a clear ear he had! Here is David Cooper’s excellent outline of the movement for the Hyperion recording:
“The slow movement is an exquisite night-music piece in three sections that has a similar feel and mood to the third movement of Music for strings, percussion and celesta. The measured opening theme is somber, and in the second theme nervous quintuplets gradually build up to a major climax and decline. Bartok subsequently creates a remarkable mist of sound from rapid overlapping chromatic passages in the pianos and the reprise of the first theme emerges from this in the second piano.”
And here are two supreme musicians at the keyboard: Sir Georg Solti and Murray Perahia with the equally supreme Evelyn Glennie and David Corkhill on percussion. The Lento slow movement begins at about 13 minutes in.
Finally, the second Violin Concerto [M319.d.2.20] – surely one of the milestones in the repertoire – with its glorious slow movement opening melody leading to a set of variations. It was composed in response to a request from the Hungarian violinist Zoltán Székely with whom Bartók would often give recitals, and first performed in April 1939. And if you’d like a more in-depth look, here is a splendid programme note from the Hollywood Bowl by Herbert Glass. https://www.hollywoodbowl.com/musicdb/pieces/4564/violin-concerto-no-2
This is Isaac Stern with Bernstein and the NYPO once again in full heart-on-sleeve mode.
PS: I note that the title of the volume of Grove VI which contains the entry for Bartók is “Back to Bolivia” – a delightful happenstance, or careful planning in the editorial department??