BARTOK: Kossuth – Symphonic Poem; Two Portraits, Op. 5; Suite No. 1, Op. 3 – Michael Ludwig, violin/ Buffalo Philharmonic Orch./ JoAnn Falletta – Naxos 8.573307, (9/1/14) 69:42 ****:
Conductor JoAnn Falletta explores (rec. October-November 2013) three scores by the young Bela Bartok, 1903-1907, beginning with the Lisztian patriotic symphonic poem, Kossuth (1903), which celebrates Lajor Kossuth (1802-1894), the Hungarian freedom-fighter who led an unsuccessful revolt against Austria in 1848. Conceived on a scale that rivals Liszt’s own Mazeppa, the work falls into ten descriptive sections, the heroic brass parts inspired by Bartok’s 1902 Budapest confrontation with the Richard Strauss Also Sprach Zarathustra in performance, which Bartok claimed “brought me to a pitch of enthusiasm.” Bartok mixes Eastern and gypsy motifs with blatant quotes from Haydn’s Emperor Quartet, the Gott Erhalt that would become Austria’s national anthem. The Buffalo Philharmonic concertmaster provides the melancholy finale in A Minor, marked by a violin solo in harmony with fading string harmonies.
The Two Portraits – Ideal and Grotesque – of 1907 provide the basis of the early First Violin Concerto, composed for Stefi Geyer, for whom Bartok harbored romantic hopes. The harmonic motion, gravitating between D Major and B Minor, beckons some dreamy textures for the Ideal, another quick allusion to Liszt while at the same time embodying Stefi herself as a leitmotif, replete with harp. The breakup of the Geyer romance resulted in the Grotesque movement, a transposition of Bartk’s own Bagatelle No. 13 of 1907. The more diabolical aspects of Berlioz and Liszt infiltrate the music, whose snarling brass and woodwinds recall the Witches’ Sabbath from the Symphonie fantastique, which likewise distorts a once-lovely ideal. The impish colors, Presto, include a high clarinet that Bartok seems to have borrowed from both Berlioz and the hanged Till Eulenspiegel.
Bartok wrote the 1905 five-movement Suite No. 1 specifically for a Vienna premiere, hoping to make a sensation as both piano virtuoso and compositional enfant terrible. For the first movement Allegro vivace Bartok calls upon the Austrian national anthem, as he had done in Kossuth. There develops a series of rustic and bucolic elements that combine with gypsy-sounding festivities. The Buffalo brass and tympani have made splendid textures since Kossuth, and they impress us here as well. The English horn, which added color to the Ideal of Op. 5, appears in the Poco adagio, the scoring of which evokes Liszt and a variant from Tchaikovsky’s Third Suite, Op. 56. The exotic quality of the texture has a tint of Richard Strauss, especially the Dance of the 7 Veils. The Presto reveals the cross-rhythmic irony that Bartok would later develop with especial savagery in his “jumping dances.” Here, he could be mistaken for Dvorak. The Buffalo woodwinds and battery have a raucous good time, while the strings add a moment of sentiment. Serving as a theme and variations transition, the Volkslied movement (Moderato) may remind auditors of Karl Goldmark. A clarinet opens the folksy door, which soon flowers into a charming string and horn cantabile of considerable persuasiveness, the variants martially robust. Lastly, Bartok proffers another dance-variation movement, Molto vivace, marked by askew accents and circus and nostalgic sensibilities, perhaps Bartok’s answer to much of Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 6, except this romp ends in F Major.