A Compelling Reading: Bartok's Concerto for Orchestra
The MHS Review 376 Vol. 10, No. 16 • 1986
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David M. Greene
Musicians of my acquaintance talked about Bartok, Stravinsky, and Schoenberg as though they were music's Holy Trinity. Today there are few musicians who deign to speak to me, but I somehow get the impression that, as an influence, Bartok has been removed from that lofty eminence.
Except among the cognoscenti, popular acceptance of Bartok as a Great Master did not come until a few years after his death in 1945. It was the Concerto that, as we say, turned me on, inaugurating in me a passionate Bartok Period, during which I listened often and compulsively to such things as the later quartets, the Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta, and the Out-of-Doors Suite. Musicians of my acquaintance talked about Bartok, Stravinsky, and Schoenberg as though they were music's Holy Trinity. Today there are few musicians who deign to speak to me, but I somehow get the impression that, as an influence, Bartok has been removed from that lofty eminence.
Though there are perhaps a few reactionaries who still regard him as a barbarian, Bartok has, it seems to me, been generally accepted by the concert-goer and record buyer. Schwann lists as many recordings (15) of the Concerto as it does of the Saint-Saens Third Symphony. Perhaps this sort of thing accounts for his demotion.
In Sunday's New York Times, William H. Gass reviews Home by Witold Rybczynski, a book subtitled "A Short History of an Idea." To this last formulation Mr. Gass says "Poppycock! The thing is not about the idea of home but about comfort, a pervasive "bourgeois" affectation with which we have stifled our "awareness." (Mr. Gass sounds like Savonarola and presumably wears a hair shirt.) One of the indexes of our complacency is that our "symphony societies exist largely to insure that each season the same dead horses will be ritually flogged." I find myself in the embarrassing position of loving a dead horse.
Bartok wrote the Concerto in 1943 on a commission from Serge Koussevitzky, who premiered it. The composer, exiled by the war, stone broke, and terminally ill, responded with a work whose orchestral brilliance and unaccustomed warmth made it something of a hit. There were those of his admirers however, who thought he was courting popularity for bread. His biographer Serge Moreux professes himself disinclined to discuss the work. Having been swept off his feet by it, he repented the emotionality of his reaction and found the orchestration "inflated" and the style embarrassingly confused, the whole being tainted with echoes of Milhaud and Hindemith. But, he concludes, the general public (read "bourgeois") allows superficial brilliance to muffle its awareness of these graver faults, and is likely to little note nor long remember what he says here.
Once again I find myself guilty of bourgeois taste, so be warned when I say that it was a real joy for me to encounter the Concerto, which I've long neglected, again. It is not, of course, a concerto in the Vivaldian sense of creating a contest between a soloist and the orchestra; rather, as Bartok himself explained, the "solo" role is played at various times by various of the the orchestral groups. Nor is the five-movement structure orthodox, though Bartok inaugurated it 40 years earlier in his first orchestral suite. The recorded sound is stunning, and the reading is as compelling as any I've heard.