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Sunday, December 18, 2011

Béla Bartók, "Concerto for Orchestra/Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta"

Béla Bartók
"Concerto for Orchestra/Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta"
RCA (1958)

1000 Recordings to Hear Before You Die

Previously on 2000ish Albums, we heard the eerie and ethnical music of composer Béla Bartók as delivered by a string quartet. So what difference does another 96 musicians make, as presented in the Chicago Symphony Orchestra's performance of Bartók's Concerto for Orchestra and his Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta? In some ways, the pieces are incredibly similar, but at other times vastly different.

A major similarity is Bartók's employment of "night music," a style the composer is well known for. As explained in the entry for Bartók's String Quartets, night music is a style where a singular melody is surrounded by dissonance, creating an effect I likened to walking through a forest alone at night. In other words, it's creepy. Having a 100-piece orchestra doesn't prevent Bartók from taking to the night. Both pieces featured on this compilation use the technique, primarily "Elegia" from Concerto, and "Adagio" from Music opens with a bit of night music.

The differences between these two pieces and Bartók's String Quartets are the upbeat periods that stand out dramatically against the eerie night music portions. This is especially prescient during Concerto for Orchestra. "Intermezzo Interrato" is upbeat to the point of comical, but it serves a purpose. The movement turns into a jumping march at around 2:15, with waggish blares of horns complementing the humorous atmosphere. Bartók apparently wrote the piece hoping to skewer Dmitri Shostakovich's Symphony No. 7, a piece he despised. "Allegro Molto," the closing movement of Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta, is unusual compared to many finales. Generally, as we saw with "Adagio for Strings" by Samuel Barber, a piece will start low and build up to a happier conclusion. In "Molto," Bartók starts off as upbeat as you'll hear him, taking over from the depressing "Adagio" before it, but then the "finale" concludes as dark as any moment during the movement.

All in all, I prefer Bartók's smaller works than his grand pieces for full orchestras. True, the composer still works in his trademark "night music" style, but the form is more effectively carried out by a simple string quartet rather than a whole orchestra. There are still quite worthwhile moments here for music nerds, such as "Giuco Delle Coppie" (or "game of pairs"), during which five pairs of instruments, (including clarinets, oboes and bassoons) take turns sharing the spotlight, playing at different intervals for five respective passages within the movement. I might prefer Bartók's String Quartets, but it's probably just be a matter of personal taste.

INTERESTING FACT: The album cover for Bartók's String Quartets presented in the previous post on the composer, feature Bartók sitting in a black and white photo. The right side of the original photograph has been cropped out. Sitting to the composer's left in the original is conductor Fritz Reiner, a friend of Bartók and a fellow Hungarian, as well as the conductor of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra for this very recording.

"Giuco Delle Coppie"

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