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Views And Reviews: Bartok's Concerto For Orchestra

...he poured his heart into the music, giving us an emotional range running from profound tragedy through wistfulness and playfulness to sheer, animal excitement. This Concerto equally rewards those seeking intellectual stimulation and those wanting a simple, sensual wallow – which is one way of defining “great music”...

Paul Serotsky draws attention to the "architectural'' design of Bartok's Concerto for Orchestra.

To read more of Paul's informed words on great music please visit http://www.openwriting.com/archives/views_and_reviews/

Bartok (1881-1945) – Concerto for Orchestra

It was Koussevitsky who, prompted by Szigeti and Reiner in the hope that they might restore the very ill and hospitalised Bartok, in 1943 tried to persuade Bartok to do a commission for the Boston SO. Bartok refused, probably thinking that he was just being kind. Koussevitsky departed, leaving the fee at Bartok's bedside (hum! Try that nowadays in this country!). It did the trick – Bartok had the work done and dusted in just eight weeks.

To my youthful embarrassment, my first LP's sleeve boasted of “A Spectacular Showpiece for Virtuoso Orchestra”. While I wouldn't altogether dispute that description, it does highlight a too-common attitude towards this work, an attitude that demands we look closer. Firstly, and most obviously, it is cast in Bartok's favourite “arch” form, symmetrically opposed movements having similar characteristics:

1: large scale
2: diversion
3: emotional core
4: diversion
5: large scale

This layout is reinforced by a number of symmetries and complementarities, the outer movements both containing fugues (Bartok much admired Bach!), with strings and woodwind “diverging” in the first and “converging” in the last. Also, the playful “diversions” both contain interpolations: in the second movement a tidy chorale, and in the fourth a riotous parody of the “Nazi” march from Shostakovich's Seventh. Finally, some first movement material feeds into the third. Fair enough: orchestral work, tight form, no soloist – so why isn't it a symphony?

The usual reason given is “because the instruments are treated in a soloistic manner”. But that's not a sufficient reason: if it were, we would be wading waist-deep in Concertos for Orchestra, because any work treating the instruments in “a soloistic manner” would qualify. We'd have Mahler's Concerto for Orchestra No. 5, to name but one! So, what additional “rules” does Bartok adopt to make the difference?

Well, I've often remarked that the baroque concerto grosso, where the soloists (the concertino) continually emerge from and blend back into the band (the ripieno), is “alive and kicking in the modern jazz-band”. However, this old form, heavily disguised maybe, does still pop up in the concert hall. It doesn't take a genius to conclude that the additional rules are essentially those governing the concerto grosso, logically expanded to make the whole orchestra generate a constantly changing concertino, generally drawn from distinct orchestral sections.

So, we find concertino groupings in all the movements: woodwind in all five movements, strings in all save the second, strings plus horns and tympani form an alliance in the odd-numbered movements (though less obviously so in the third), and the brass in the central fugue of the first movement, the chorale of the second, and the coda of the finale. Within this, there is a pattern of alternation, though this is not applied with absolute rigour (after all, this isn't a precursor of post-war “total serialism”!). I could go on, because some more detailed organisation does operate – but that, as my mathematics lecturer used to say, “I leave to you as an exercise”.

Yet, how “good” a piece of music would it be, if it were nothing more than some formal exercise to update the concerto grosso? Let me put it this way: we haven't brought you here just to listen to well-organised rubbish! Bartok fleshes out that skeleton with a procession of splendid tunes (even if one is by Shostakovich!), vibrant rhythms, some spine-tingling harmonies, and a rare palette of orchestral colour.

On top of that, he poured his heart into the music, giving us an emotional range running from profound tragedy through wistfulness and playfulness to sheer, animal excitement. This Concerto equally rewards those seeking intellectual stimulation and those wanting a simple, sensual wallow – which is one way of defining “great music”.

There's one other thing: this is the least abrasive of Bartok's mature compositions, and by an uncommonly long chalk. Why? I think part of the answer lay in that fee which, in spite of his declining the commission, was left so trustingly by his bedside.

1. Introduction: The bass-black opening is heavy with Bartok's omnipresent longing for his lost homeland. An eerie glow brightens, illuminating the scene: a sonata suffused with an alternation of unearthly, feminine dancing and earthy, masculine vigour.

2. Games (Presentation) of the Couples: A snareless side-drum acts as “ringmaster”, ushering in a procession of pairs (bassoons, oboes, clarinets, muted trumpets), then a solemn brass chorale, before recalling the pairs to embellish their acts. Finally, the “ringmaster” remains, alone, his tapping receding into silence.

3. Elegy: At the very heart of this “spectacular showpiece” is a “night-music” initially reminiscent of the very start of the work. This, buckling under a leaden burden of sorrow, is born of Bartok's intense homesickness, magnified by horror at what has happened to his beloved Hungary. A passionate theme from the first movement is transformed into a song of bitter anguish, subsiding into desolate condolence.

4. Interrupted Intermezzo: The genteel alternation of a dainty dance and a sugary song comes as a shock after the Elegy. That the play of these innocents is disrupted by a disgustingly rude “razberry”, badly in need of a “ringmaster's” firm hand, is doubly shocking. Triply shocking, though, is that they ignore it completely. Ah, but then, being genteel, I suppose that they would – wouldn't they?

5. Finale: A flourish of horns releases a wild fugato which whirls through several climaxes before settling back onto the flourish, now itself become a mini-fugato initiated by bassoons. Soon, a fully-fledged, perfectly proper fugue is under way. Started by the trumpets, its theme is put through the full range of hoops, before the whirlwind returns. The coda begins in nocturnal rustlings, building relentlessly to a final, blazing peroration. Brilliant, breathtaking music: thus does Bartok at once pay homage to his homeland, salute the great JSB, and generously acknowledge his faithful friends.

© Paul Serotsky

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