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Western Music: Bela Bartok, a Hungarian Composer Essay

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Updated: Sep 7th, 2021


Bela Bartok heard an authentic Hungarian folksong for the first time in 1905, and it changed his life–not to mention the course of 20th Century music. Until that moment he believed that the Gypsy melodies popularized by Liszt and Brahms accurately represented the Hungarian folk idiom. But here was something wholly new: raw, uncompromising, and exhilarating. Fascinated by what he heard, Bartok made several excursions into the countryside (sometimes accompanied by his friend Zoltan Kodaly) to collect and preserve these unique melodies. More importantly, he quickly began to incorporate folk elements into his compositions.

Bartok’s earliest efforts betray the influence of Liszt, enhanced by the modernism of, Richard Strauss. After discovering folk music, his compositions took on a different and far more original flavor. Irregular meters and off-beat accents were employed to generate unprecedented excitement and vitality. Rapid, unexpected changes of meter added further unpredictability. The folk song also freed Bartok from what he called “the tyranny of the major and minor keys”. While he never abandoned tonality, Bartok nonetheless employed every resource available to him: ancient modes, pentatonic and oddly irregular folk scales, 12-tone rows, polytonality, and even quarter-tones or other deviations from standard tuning.

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Simultaneously Bartok began to use conventional instruments in exciting new ways. He transformed the piano into a veritable percussion orchestra, most remarkably in his first two piano concertos. Sometimes he even used stringed instruments percussively–as in the quartets, where pizzicatos are often plucked with such violence that the strings slap back against the fingerboard. Meanwhile, the percussionists themselves get quite a workout in such works as the Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion, Piano Concerto 1, and Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celeste.

Bartok combined these innovations with strict formal designs gleaned from Bach (fugue, canon) and Beethoven (sonata), a shimmering orchestral palette that rivaled Debussy’s, and deeply personal response to events in his life and the world around him. A lost love (Quartet 1), the loss of his homeland to Nazi sympathizers (Divertimento, Quartet 6), and even the loss of his health (Concerto for Orchestra: III) are all reflected in his music. Even in his most brutal and difficult scores, Bartok’s essential humanity shines through.

Toward the end, his work took on a new depth and richness of expression. The creations of his final years–such as the Concerto for Orchestra and Piano Concerto 3–remain among his most popular. As he lay on his deathbed in 1945 Bartok told his doctor, “The trouble is that I have to go with so much still to say.” (Godell 57-57)

“Truth before beauty, or so say connoisseurs of late Beethoven and the Bartok Quartets.” While not everyone will agree with this March/April 1997 Arved Ashby quote, every interpreter of Bartok’s music must confront this dichotomy. Too much of the unvarnished truth and the result becomes harsh, raucous, and unlistenable. On the contrary, overemphasis of the composer’s dreamy, lyrical side saps the music of its strength and character. Only those who strike a delicate balance between these extremes can hope to reveal all the secrets inherent in these powerful, compelling scores.

So many superb discs have appeared since our 1992 Bartok Overview that our critics have more to recommend than we can possibly accommodate in this limited space. How frustrating, then, to report that quite a few of the very best Bartok recordings have either been deleted from the catalog or simply never made the transition to CD.

Concerto for Orchestra

Bartok lay dying in a New York hospital when conductor Serge Koussevitzky arrived unexpectedly with a $1000 commission and the promise of a first performance by the Boston Symphony. The project gave Bartok a new lease on life, and he responded with one of his most profound and compelling creations. Writing for what was then an ensemble of incomparable virtuosos, he built a succession of dazzling solos into his intricate score. At the same time, the music poignantly expressed the composer’s state of mind at the time: from the dark, somber tones of the nightmarish introduction to the funereal III to the exuberant, life-affirming finale–leavened by the gentle humor of II and the slapstick satire of his uproarious send-up of Shostakovich’s Leningrad Symphony in IV.

In 1992 we most strongly recommended the recordings of Reiner, Bernstein, Boulez, Solti, and Ancerl. Many competitors have come forward since, but our recommendations remain essentially unchanged. Some say it was Reiner who persuaded Koussevitzky to commission this work. Perhaps that’s why he identifies so strongly with this music. His tense, white-hot reading is marked by some of the most brilliant orchestral playing ever captured on disc. The brassy climax at the end of the development in me and the brass chorale at the heart of II are still breathtaking–over 45 years after this amazing recording was made. Only our Editor dissents: “There is something steamy about this music that Reiner fails to put across. He’s too crisp and cool, unable by nature to indulge that sort of feeling–insensitive to atmosphere”.

While for most of us, Reiner’s “truth” is very compelling, Bernstein’s “beauty” has much to recommend it. Unlike his stern, literal-minded teacher (Reiner), Bernstein embraces the warmth and atmosphere of the music. Has the brass chorale in II ever sounded sweeter? Never content to merely beat time, Bernstein dares to interpret this music, subtly modulating his tempos and deftly emphasizing neglected inner voices. Ancerl is also magnificent–nearly as warm as Lenny. Ancerl goes for a smooth, legato sound; the music flows. This conductor had a total concept, and there’s atmosphere aplenty. The Czech brass is all tone, no harshness. The strings are full and enveloping. What a splendid orchestra Ancerl had! His finale is slower than average (so are Ormandy and Kubelik), and the slower tempo allows for better articulation and accuracy.

Of the versions that have surfaced since 1992, perhaps only the budget-priced reissue of Stokowski’s classic 1961 Houston Symphony recording on Everest belongs in this exalted company. Unlike Ancerl, Stokowski favors brisk tempos that generate unprecedented excitement, especially in the whirlwind finale. The recorded sound is remarkably clear and balanced, and the orchestra–though hardly one of the world’s finest–plays splendidly. The Houston brass is truly thrilling at the end of I’s development. II moves along quickly, but never feels rushed like Rattle. Through it all Stokowski communicates as if speaking directly to us, relating a compelling, meaningful tale.

Of Solti’s recordings the spirited splendidly played London Symphony account noses out the more scholarly and less spontaneous Chicago remake. Neither outdistances the others on our list–even in sound–and both have vanished from the catalog. Boulez, as usual, divides us. We all appreciate his pinpoint precision and recommend his New York recording. We called his Chicago Symphony remake “great…the orchestra is with him every step of the way…I & III are especially good in their ebb and flow.” But the lyrical moments don’t sing, and though his slow tempos sometimes drag, he mistakes speed for wit in IV. Indeed this recording demonstrates once and for all–as if we didn’t already know–that Boulez has no sense of humor.

John McKelvey praised Slatkin’s rightness of balance, solidity of ensemble, clarity of texture, and justness of proportion, but noted that his tempos were on the slow side. The playing of the St Louis Symphony is certainly smooth and suave but utterly ordinary, and the interpretation is typically (for this conductor) low-voltage. Slatkin recorded both endings–the abrupt original and the more elaborate and satisfying rewrite that Bartok appended at Koussevitzky’s request.

Ashby called Ivan Fischer “excellent”, hailing his orchestra’s grainy, dark colors and alert, sensitive, yet slightly reserved conducting. He further praised the organic unity of the myriad tempo and dynamic changes, but I find the result breezy, emotionally homogenized, and devoid of the requisite cohesion and drama. Ozawa prompts yet another split decision: Chakwin calls him unimpressive and disengaged, but Ashby considers his recording one of the best and lauds the conductor’s sensitivity and impeccably judged detail.

Karajan’s colorful, rhythmically alert reading is sabotaged by mediocre sound. By contrast, the RCA Leinsdorf reissue boasts an amazing sound that reveals details in the scoring better than nearly any other. But some of us find his interpretation unremarkable and dull. Blomstedt breaks no new ground. His rendition is slow but not dull or lethargic, cleanly articulated, colorful, and nicely proportioned. Andrew Davis provides an interesting, offbeat view of the work, with an emphasis on atmosphere and ambiance. He’s less hard-edged, more colorful, refined, and introspective than most of the competition. Salonen’s approach is similar, though he’s too often lethargic. His II needs more humor and impishness, and if he has any interest in III, he fails to convey it to the listener.

Rattle was only intermittently inspired by this great music, and he sounds bland next to our recommended versions–too cool and low-key. His orchestra lacks the suave virtuosity of Reiner’s Chicago or Dohnanyi’s Cleveland, and he rushes through the gorgeous brass chorale in II–a truly unforgivable crime! Gatti’s generic, homogenized approach understates the spiky, edgy, quirky rhythms and tone colors and doesn’t sound very Hungarian. Inbal is dull, weak, and lifeless. Szell leaves little room for expression of emotion in Bartok’s most passionate work. His tempos are relentlessly fast and the mood invariably tense. Teldec’s hard-edged, shrill, edgy, harsh, and glaring sound obscures an otherwise well-shaped and nicely played rendition by Hugh Wolff.

Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta

Bartok wrote this for conductor Paul Sacher in 1936. It’s a jazzy, exuberant affair, though not without its darker side–especially the eerie, nocturnal III. The instrumentation is quite unusual: two groups of strings placed on either side of the stage with the percussionists in between. The clever antiphonal writing–not to mention the mysterious fugue in I–betrays the influence of Bach, but the finale explores lively, irregular Bulgarian dance rhythms that Bach could never have imagined.

The Reiner comes with the Concerto for Orchestra. Reiner is fast and exciting, with a dazzling orchestra and recorded sound. But Bernstein–one of the slowest–interpreted the music, giving it far more personality and expression. What a range he had! He covers the gamut from wild, tense, and brilliant to warm, smooth, and mysterious. This was always one of his favorite pieces, and it shows in his volatile reading. The New York strings are powerful, as is the sound.

Ormandy’s Sony recording was not only superbly played but also Hungarian in sound and spirit to an extent almost unique in the recorded listings. He’s far less dry, angular, and spiky than other versions. The music’s contours are softened noticeably, and there are unmistakable reminiscences of dance forms such as the czardas and verbunkos in their darkened interior.

Karajan’s recording was magnificent, even if he displays less personality than Bernstein. He makes the transfigured return of the opening theme in the finale absolutely thrilling–no one matches him. The sound was good but hardly state-of-the-art. Kubelik also understood this work exceptionally well. His tempos are ideal, and he leads a powerful, controlled performance. But Kubelik’s Mercury recording is not stereo, and Bartok’s antiphonal writing cries out for stereo separation.

Boulez is–well–Boulez: the epitome of clarity, definition, and balance to his fans; dry, humorless, and flaccid to his detractors. I hear none of Bernstein’s joy or spirit in his soulless recording. Rahbari’s approach (Naxos) is just as sterile, though he does at least manage to find a bit more mystery in me. While Salonen offers no new insights, he nonetheless delivers a solid, middle-of-the-road account that one can return to regularly. The same could be said of Saraste (coupled with a knockout Wooden Prince on Finlandia), though you’ll search in vain for the fire and vitality of Bernstein.

Dohnanyi cannot match Solti’s or Bernstein’s warmth and passion, while Kantorow is outclassed by the very best recordings in a very competitive field. Inbal has no energy, vigor, rhythmic focus, sense of direction, or commitment. Ozawa, too, sleepwalks his way through the score, and DG gives him its worst recording job in years–the strings sound like wool rubbing against cardboard.

Violin Concerto

Toward the end of his life, Bartok remarked, “With maturity comes the wish to economize–to be more simple. Maturity is the period when one finds just measure.” Bartok was beginning to find this “just measure” when he undertook the creation of his Violin Concerto in 1938. But horrific storm clouds were gathering on the horizon. Hungary was about to conclude a dangerous alliance with Hitler, and Bartok would soon leave his native land forever. Thus the concerto still has its share of slashing attacks and angry exclamations, but they are balanced by moments of ravishing beauty and overwhelming emotion.

Kyung-Wha Chung achieves a remarkable balance between these extremes in her second recording. With thrilling support from Simon Rattle, she tears into the fortissimos fearlessly, then turns on a dime to melt our hearts with a glowing, lyrical statement. She rightly sees II–an expressive theme with variations–as the emotional core of the work; in her hands, it becomes a uniquely touching and commanding utterance. Her technique may have been slightly better on her earlier London recording, but that reading was much cooler interpretively. (Vroon 80-86)

Zukerman is so smooth, warm, and lyrical that he’s still hard to resist. The dark poetry of the piece is there, and it’s a very sensitive interpretation. Midori is quite different from most others: very soft-edged (and soft) and lyrical–more so than Zukerman, even. She lacks the bite and drama that most of us consider minimal in this work, but she’s worth hearing if you have always found it too harsh. In the long run, however, her recording does not wear as well as the more red-blooded Chung.

Menuhin and Furtwangler integrate the solo and orchestral parts far more intelligently, idiomatically, and passionately than anyone before or since. Their early recording boasts excellent mono sound, and Furtwangler has a unique way of drawing the listener into the music, giving it a numinous significance. Ashby dissents, finding Menuhin’s interpretation strange and unconvincing. No one advocates Menuhin’s less spontaneous Mercury remake with Dorati.

Zehetmair projects the music with dedication and authority. He favors brisk tempos–noticeably faster than Menuhin–yet he’s more relaxed and less hard-edged than Gertler. Kaplan has a secure technique and beautiful tone. His reading is reminiscent of Zukerman, but shows more real emotion in I and brings out the variety of moods in III more clearly. Stern’s playing was easily surpassed by Zukerman, though we all appreciate the subtlety and tight rhythmic snap of Bernstein’s accompaniment, and Ashby still considers it the best available version. Where Stern and Bernstein hear the concerto as a work full of color, Shaham and Boulez hear it as more compact, more limited in sound. They home in on the rarefied and aloof passages where the aging Bartok seems to forget his public.

Vilmos Szabadi possesses the requisite technique and golden tone for this music, but his version can’t begin to approach Midori’s mystery and tension or Chung’s emotional intensity. Andre Gertler is also a fine player, but he lacks Menuhin’s personality and presence; his recording with Karel Ancerl left little impression. Pauk’s gentle, understated approach undermines the rude earthiness of the music. Mullova, as she so often does, comes across as a sort of automaton–cold, efficient, emotionless, satisfied with presenting merely the letter of the score–yet this music needs to be interpreted, not merely played. (Antokoletz 1-7)

Nowadays it’s fashionable to refer to this piece as the “Second” Violin Concerto. But Bartok refused to publish the so-called “First” Concerto. That work is often derivative (Richard Strauss is a prominent influence) and not up to the high standard set by his acknowledged works. He was right to leave it on the shelf; you should too.

Viola Concerto

Great viola concertos don’t come along very often, making it especially tragic that Bartok died before he could complete this one. Fortunately, Tibor Serly deciphered and fleshed out the composer’s very rough draft, enabling William Primrose to perform it in 1949. It’s an attractive, richly expressive, autumnal score very much in the spirit of Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra and Piano Concerto 3.

Perhaps nothing will ever surpass Primrose’s ancient LP on the Bartok label with Serly himself conducting. Despite the ravages of time, that fragile disc retains its power to amaze and astonish the listener. Primrose’s stunning rendition boasts undeniable freshness, vigor, and color, and Serly supplies alert and incisive support. Beware: two different concert appearances by Primrose have been dredged up and issued on CD by Mode and Music & Arts–they are vastly inferior in both sound and performance to his incomparable studio recording.

If you have an aversion to haunting used LP stores, the pickings are slim. Kashkashian doesn’t erase Primrose’s memory. Hers is a soft-edged Bartok with little fire and broken chords in the finale. Chatwin called Zukerman “decent”, but I hate the thin, wiry sound of his viola. Wolfram Christ (with Ozawa on DG) has a flat, musty viola tone without the Slavic vibrato that makes Nemeth sound like a contralto on Hungaroton. Yo-Yo Ma recorded the concerto on an “alto violin”–actually a large viola fitted with a long end-pin and held like a cello. Alas, the instrument does not project well, and Ma’s interpretation lacks Primrose’s authority and soaring lyricism.

In 1995 Bartok’s son Peter and violist Paul Neubauer published a new edition of the concerto. Where differences between the two versions can be detected by the naked ear, Serly’s decisions are inevitably more musical and convincing. Hong-Mei Xiao has recorded both on a single Naxos disc. We prefer Primrose’s darker, more elegant tone, but Xiao is obviously a gifted violist. Her playing has great gusto, and she’s the closest to Primrose in spirit and sound that I’ve yet encountered. Her soulful, expressive approach is ideally suited to this warm-hearted music.

Piano Concertos

Bartok created three of the 20th Century’s finest piano concertos. The first two, from the late 1920s, are percussive, sometimes harshly dissonant works that in many ways reflect the spirit of Stravinsky. The third and finest, from 1945, is less fiercely modern–a reflective, lyrical work that revisits the tonal world of the Concerto for Orchestra, with a whiff of Lisztian brimstone tossed in for variety.

The classic Geza Anda/Ferenc Fricsay versions of all three concertos have been reissued at least twice (by DG and Philips) since our last Overview, which dismissed them perfunctorily. A reevaluation of these 40-year-old recordings is clearly in order. This music still sounds full and vital under Anda’s fingers. He’s more colorful and communicative than Ashkenazy and displays more character than Donohoe or Jando. His readings are very idiomatic and passionate, with great early stereo sound. The orchestra, though, does leave something to be desired–“hideous” says Arved Ashby.

Ashkenazy and Solti have many advantages: the warm Decca sound, fiery conducting with a streak of Hungarian authenticity, and brilliant playing. The No. 3 is probably the best ever made for those qualities and for its very real lyricism–missing from so many recordings.

Gyorgy Sandor studied with Bartok and gave the world premiere of Concerto 3. His 1959 Vienna taping (Vox & Tuxedo) shows him to be a powerful advocate, and Michael Gielen supports him well. A few years before that he recorded it with Ormandy for Columbia (wonderful–truly lyrical), and in his 80s he made a lively new recording of the concertos with Adam Fischer for Sony. Bronfman is fastidious, clearly articulated, richly expressive, and wholly convincing. Salonen and the LAPO accompany splendidly. Tempo and interpretive style are quite similar to Anda.

Jan at his best is dynamic and revealing, and the Budapest orchestra plays better than Chicago with Pollini. Yet Pollini finds more detail in the music than Jando. He articulates the rhythms and harmonies with great care and variety where Jando merely seems splashy. Pollini had brilliance, aggression, and flair; his recordings of 1 and 2 were the most exciting ever. (Their sound was brilliant but cold.) Nonetheless, Jando’s 1+2 are excellent–though not as violent and bracing as Pollini or Anda, or Kovacevich. Look elsewhere for a good 3; Jando’s rendition lacks commitment and fire. (Somfai 10-11)

Some of us like Donohoe/Rattle, but it needs more personality, more of the life that Bartok himself brought to the keyboard. In Concertos 1+2 Andras Schiff’s soft-edged, song-like approach disappoints. Only the outer movements of 3 offer some mild satisfaction. There’s a Philips edition by Zoltan Kocsis, but his cool, dry, colorless pianistic style is not appealing.


We’ve also reviewed some individual concertos. The sheer ferocity of Richter in Concerto 2 has never been approached. At the same time, he effortlessly conveys the music’s unbuttoned joy and high spirits. Lehman had considerable praise for the white-hot intensity, hair-trigger precision, and rock-solid sound of Stephen Kovacevich/Colin Davis on Philips, though it’s too relentless and percussive for some of us, and Davis is not idiomatic in Bartok.

Argerich plays 3, Bartok’s most lyrical concerto, with poetry and soul. Barenboim and Boulez recorded only Concertos 1+3 for EMI. McKelvey found the bar lines too evident and noted less spontaneity, individuality, and richness of expression than one might wish, though it is one of Chakwin’s favorite recordings.

Works Cited

Antokoletz, Elliott (1984). The Music of Béla Bartók: A Study of Tonality and Progression in Twentieth-Century Music. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Godell, (2004). Bartok: Music for Strings, Percussion, & Celeste; Divertimento (Music). American Record Guide, Vol. 67 Issue 6, p 57-57.

Somfai, Lászlo. (1996). Béla Bartók: Composition, Concepts, and Autograph Sources. Ernest Bloch Lectures. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Vroon, Donald R., (2000). Guide to Records: Bartok. American Record Guide, Vol. 63 Issue 4, p 80-86.

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