BARTÓK: 44 Duos for Two Violins, Sz. 98 – Duo Landon – MSR Classics MS 1401 [Distr. by Albany], 49:53 ****:
The 44 Duos of 1931 came at the request of German violinist Erich Doflein who wanted a teaching vehicle for young violin students. Doflein was also looking for pieces that would introduce the young to folk music, so it was natural he would turn to Bartók, whose For Children of 1909 was intended as a primer in folk music and whose monumental Mikrokosmos, a series of 155 progressive piano pieces in six volumes, had been in the works since 1926. Just so, Bartók’s Duos are divided into books dedicated to starting (Books 1 and 2), intermediate (Book 3), and advanced players (Book 4). They reflect Bartók’s immersion in the study of Hungarian folk melody and venture as well into other music of southeastern Europe and the Arabic world.
Most of the music in the 44 Duos is folk-derived but filtered through Bartók’s own musical language, including the modernist traits that make his music difficult for some listeners even today: polyrhythms, polytonality, stomping syncopations, dissonance that verges on the atonal. According to the liner notes to this disc, only two of the Duos, Nos. 36 and 36b, entitled “Bagpipes,” feature an original melody by Bartók. Others of the pieces announce the provenance of their melodies: “Hungarian March,” “Transylvanian Dance,” “Slovakian Song,” “Walachian Dance,” “Arabian Song.” Other pieces have titles that reflect the youth of their intended performers: “Lullaby,” “Mosquito Dance,” “Limping Dance,” “Fairy Tale,” “Sorrow”—shades of Schumann’s Album for the Young.
Some of the earlier numbers have that lightness of both technical demand and emotional language that we expect in music for the young. Even so, it’s clear from the start that this is music of a great composer who can write interesting music no matter the level of difficulty. Like his pedagogical predecessor Schumann, Bartók doesn’t feel the least need to condescend to his youthful performers—witness the haunting tenderness of No. 11, “Lullaby.” As a result, there are gems throughout the collection, though as a listening experience the more advanced pieces hold the attention better. One of the most arresting numbers for Bartók fanciers will be No. 43, “Pizzicato.” The composer turns his melody into a bouncy, imitative piece for plucked strings that seems a reminiscence of one his most original inspirations, the Allegretto pizzicato from his String Quartet No. 4 of 1927.
While the numbers in the Duos are progressive, Bartók understood that the whole would be far more interesting to listeners, and seasoned performers, if it were arranged in an order that juxtaposed simple with more advanced pieces. Duo Landon (Icelandic violinists Hlíf Sigurjónsdóttir and Hjörleifur Valsson) wisely choose to present the pieces in Bartók’s recommended performance order. So we start at the end of the series, with No. 44, “Transylvanian Dance,” and then proceed to the less challenging No. 19, “Fairy Tale.” No. 1, “Matchmaking Song,” appears in the ninth slot, and by that time, the listener is charmed—at least this listener definitely is—into entering Bartók’s fascinating sound world with no thought of the pedagogical intent behind this project.
Duo Landon approaches this music with down-to-earth vitality that underscores the sources of Bartók inspiration. Just as there is nothing academic about the composer’s work, there is nothing of the classroom in the performances, just fervor, elemental drive, plus sensitivity to the gentler pages in the collection.
Be forewarned that the recording, made in the Sigurjón Ólafsson Museum in Reykjavik, is both close-up and high level. Until you get the volume level just right, listening may prove a jarring experience. Afterward, however, you’ll be amply rewarded by the artistry of composer and performers—as well as sonics that prove quite natural.
Haydn Quartets, spanning two decades