BARTOK: Contrasts for Violin, Clarinet, and Piano; Rhapsody No. 1 for Violin and Piano; Mikrokosmos (excerpts) – Benny Goodman, clarinet/Joseph Szigeti, violin/ Bela Bartok, piano
Naxos Historical 8.111343, 71:35 [Not distributed in the U.S.] ****:
Bela Bartok’s complete published American discs grace this fine collection, edited and transferred by Mark Obert-Thorn. It opens with the 13 May 1940 Contrasts of 1938, a work commissioned by Benny Goodman (1909-1986), who could easily make the cross over from his native jazz to the classics. Bartok took Hungarian and Romanian dance melodies and fused them to jazz rhythms, even incorporating a clarinet cadenza. Bartok’s harmony is no less refined, often exploiting degrees of the major and minor triad to achieve a discordant, bitonal, jarring sound that constantly avoids a tidy resolution. The Recruiting Dance casts a rather wiry sonority, especially given Joseph Szigeti’s dry tone. The second movement is called Relaxation, but its keyboard part grumbles in threatening motifs. Like much of Bartok’s “night music,” it shifts about in a hazy imitation of Debussy’s Nuages from the Nocturnes. The middle section becomes rather intense, the violin and keyboard sounds rather detached from the clarinet riffs. Szigeti (1892-1973) must adjust his violin, scoradatura, for the last movement, Sebes, which begins with a clear allusion to Saint-Saens’ Danse macabre. The metrics become deliberately uneven and wild, a series of variants in 2/8 and 3/8, occasionally looking back to the slow movement. Pungent, acerbic, and bluesy, the movement owes a debt to Ravel’s Sonata for Violin and Piano and maybe a nod to Gershwin. The violin cadenza generates a raucous energy, then the clarinet and piano rejoin Szigeti for the dervish last pages.
The 1928 Rhapsody No. 1 (rec. 4 May 1940) employs a scale motif in the Lassu section that might look to Hungary, Romania, or Ruthenia for its gypsy sources. The dotted rhythm contrasts with the melancholy tune in long-short pulsations. The Friss section immediately invokes Copland’s “Simple Gifts” motif from Appalachian Spring. The violin, however, quickly takes a series of virtuosic turns in improvisatory character, often strident and archly lyrical. A secondary motif reverts to wiry gypsy style, the violin using harmonics and slashing strokes on the E String. The complete unity of the two musicians reminds us that their joint recital at the Library of Congress in 1940 remains a great moment for recorded chamber music.
Bartok gives us 32 individual dances–forty-five minutes’ worth–from his pedagogical collection of the 1920s and 1930s, the Mikrokosmos, six volumes of keyboard music organized in increasing difficulty. Recorded 29-30 April 1940, 7 May 1940, and 13, 16 May 1940, Bartok gives us both muscular and sensitive readings of his work: I recall that my first encounter with any Scarlatti on the keyboard was from a Bartok inscription! The Fourths and Peasant Dance strike us early, from the shellac set for CBS (M-455), in which the latter bows to Bach’s preludes and partitas. From the Island of Bali pays homage to Debussy and to the fascination of the gamelan orchestra. No. 138 is a rustic character piece, Bagpipe, which is Bartok’s smiling at Grieg. From the Diary of a Fly (No. 142) has an eerie Kafka-esque pointillism about it. Free Variations (No. 140) offers plenty of rhythmical percussion that Barber and Menotti would borrow without apology. With some interruption between them, Bartok presents us his Six Dances in Bulgarian Rhythm (Nos. 148-153) which in their bold and jazzy syncopations also pay homage to the Debussy etudes.
The last thirteen pieces Obert-Thorn takes from a 1951 CBS LP (ML 4419), not always in flawless condition. The acoustic seems dry, but the sinewy clangor in Bartok comes through in the angular Melody (No. 116) and in the “ancient” style of the Village Joke (No. 130). Divided Arpeggios (No. 143) sounds like a practice piece for Debussy’s En Blanc et Noir or one of the etudes; a Lisztian March (No. 147) follows; then, the longest exercise: the Minor Seconds, Major Sevenths, (No. 144), which soon transcends its merely “intervallic” exploration and points to a world soon inhabited by Kurtag and Ligeti. Pieces like Notturno (No. 97), Triplets in 9/8 Time (No. 118), and Boating (No. 125) let us appreciate Bartok’s range of color and experience, his restless, searching capacity to find tonal novelty and rhythmic explosiveness in the diurnal aspects of his stormy and creative life. A seminal collection for the Bartok enthusiast.