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Friday, December 23, 2011

Béla Bartók, "Bartók: Concerto No. 3 for Piano and Orchestra; Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 6"

Béla Bartók
"Bartók: Concerto No. 3 for Piano and Orchestra; Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 6"
Orfeo (1989)

1000 Recordings to Hear Before You Die

The final installment of our three-part series on Bartók is equally a look at Tchaikovsky, an even more well-known Romantic composer from eastern Europe. The album, "Bartók: Concerto No. 3 for Piano and Orchestra; Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 6," is a Iive recording from the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra that Moon uses to demonstrate how two very different pieces of music can be assembled into one very good classical outing. Although how the pieces are different is an important issue, the background of the respective composers is even more prescient.

The obvious difference between these two pieces is that one is happy and upbeat, while the other tends towards moribund. What is more surprising (especially to those who checked out the previous works from Bartók) is that the Hungarian composer is the mind behind the upbeat piece. Although we haven't looked at any works solely by Tchaikovsky, many are familiar with the composer simply because of the famous Nutcracker Suite. Those expecting a similarly sugar-sweet piece from the Russian composer will be surprised.

Tchaikovsky suffered from depression and insecurity as he aged, and the effects can be seen in Symphony No. 6, the final piece that he wrote before his death. The four-movement composition has an interesting arrangement; typical symphonies tend to feature the upbeat allegro movements at the beginning and finale, as to enter and exit on an exciting note. Tchaikovsky however opted to sandwich two allegros between a pair of adagios. Granted, these adagios are not as slow or somber as similar movements we've seen from Samuel Barber, but the mood is still dark. Emphasizing the mood is the time dedicated to both movement styles. The two allegro movements total 18:08, whereas the adagios total 31:59.

On the other hand, the eerie String Quartets of Bartók are light years away from the relatively buoyant Concerto No. 3 presented here. As with the piece from Tchaikovsky, this was the last work composed by Bartók. The piece was written after the composer had moved to New York during World War II, which apparently had a profound effect upon him. It's a better showcase for the orchestra's virtuoso, pianist Annie Fischer, and her introduction to Bartók's opening "Allegretto," coupled with strings, seems to emulate fellow New Yorker George Gershwin. Bartók tends towards tonality more than in his previous work, and despite an attempt at night music (which is much less fearful featuring a piano), the piece doesn't take to folk influences as with the other work from Bartók.

Also worth considering is the quality of the recording for the album. Generally, live records require absolute perfection from sound engineers to succeed. This album is humorous in some of its lapses, including repeated coughs loudly audible in the audience, and 30 seconds of silence at the introduction to Tchaikovsky's "Adagio-Allegro non Troppo," where the strings are playing so quietly that the recording failed to pick it up. Does this duo of Romantic compositions work as harmoniously as Moon suggests? Maybe, maybe not. Either way, both of these recordings are great, and an attendee would be lucky to hear both in one concert.

INTERESTING FACT: Critics often lament the simplicity of the piano part for Bartók's Concerto No. 3. Many believe that the reason for the downgrade was because the composer wrote the piece for his wife to perform. Ditta Pásztory was a concert pianist, although not the world's greatest. Therefore her doting husband played down to her level.

"Concerto No. 3 for Piano and Orchestra"

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