Saturday, 31 December 2011

New Year Swallows from Austria

New Year, a fresh start, out with the old and in with new, etc, but however disinclined I might feel beforehand I always seem to end up listening to and/or watching the world-famous New Year's Day Concert from Vienna where, year in and year out, the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra does what it does so well and delights us with the music of various Strausses (though not usually Richard), plus a smattering of non-Strausses. Tomorrow it's Mariss Jansons conducting and the non-Strausses are Carl Maria Ziehrer, Joseph Hellmesberger, the Dane Hans Christian Lumbye and, unusually, Tchaikovsky (a bit of Sleeping Beauty).

Johann Strauss the Younger is, of course, always the star composer, but my ears always prick up when I hear something by his brother, Josef. Johann famously said of his slightly younger brother, "Pepi [his family nickname] is the more gifted of us two; I am merely the more popular." Josef is, like Johann, a fine tunesmith but his harmonic palette is richer than his brother's and the range of feeling is wider too. He was, by all accounts, quite a melancholy man and this strain in his character can be heard from time to time in his works. Tomorrow the Vienna Phil will be giving us three polkas, namely the Jockey Polka, Kunstler-Gruss and Feuerfest, plus the polka-mazurka Brennende Liebe and one of his most famous pieces, the waltz Delirien.

Some of the most enchanting music from the Strauss Family comes in the slow introductions to their pieces and this is especially the case with Josef. They can be quite surprising on first hearing. Take Delirien, for example. Yes, it soon turns into a waltz sequence of the kind any Viennese concert goer (or radio listener) would instantly recognise as being a typical example of a Strauss Family tunefest, full of festive amiability, but it begins with what sounds remarkably like a Wagnerian tone-poem in miniature - a very dramatic piece of writing which wouldn't sound out of place in the Ring, with its stormy tremolo string writing and vivid lightning flashes of wind colour

This highly winning blend of depth (in the introductions) and lightness (in the waltz sequences) can also be heard in another of Josef's most performed pieces, the waltz Spharenklange (Music of the Spheres), whose opening harmonies and scoring recall Wagner's Lohengrin before drifting through various keys towards a romantic melody that might have been by Richard Strauss at his lushest. This tune, made light, becomes the main tune of the genial waltz sequence that follows. I have to admit, as with Delirien, that it's almost a shame that the waltz sequence has to begin at all, so bewitching is this introductory music. If I'm confessing the whole truth and nothing but the truth, I'd add that part of me wishes that Josef had ignored the waltz sequences altogether and just kept on in the vein of his introductions right through to the end.

Even so light-heated a waltz as Dorfschwalben aus Osterreich (Village Swallows from Austria), with its chirruping bird noises, has a lovely little pastoral introduction where the clarinet sings a sweet, slightly wistful tune. Another 'introduction to the waltz' to savour is Studentenraume (Student Rooms), which has a warmth and a beguiling tune for the flute that I suspect you will find particularly endearing, and please check out the beautiful introductions to the Wiegenlieder (Cradle Songs) and Musen-Klange (Music for the Muses) waltzes . All last for a short time, then give birth to sequences of the expected kind.

Though only about half as prolific as his more famous brother, he still penned hundreds of pieces and routine inevitably occasionally takes over. Still, the more works I hear by Josef Strauss the higher the opinion I have of him. You may have heard the adorable polka-mazurka Die Libelle (The Dragonfly), the lilting tunefulness of its main melody, aided and abetted by some delicious scoring, making it one of his gems. Other outstanding examples of his art are the Petitionen (Petition) waltz, which keeps its high standards up throughout, as does the Landler-style Stiefmutterchen (Pansy) polka-mazurka.

So here's to Josef Strauss and 2012!
Happy New Year!

Friday, 30 December 2011

Bartok VI: Of Bach and Bloggers Banging On

Back to Bartok! No solo piano works emerged for six years following the Improvisations of 1920; indeed, from 1923-26, he largely fell silent as a composer. In 1926 he bounced back with a bang and this post will mainly be about the three masterpieces from that year, Bartok's so-called 'Year of the Piano', though I'm going to begin by exercising the blogger's prerogative to put the world to rights - or at least that very, very small part of the world that writes things about Bartok and his music. So brace yourselves!

There's long been something of a tradition among Bartok writers that makes a big fuss about 1926, marking it out as the year when Bartok finally reached his full maturity and finally found his true voice. He did so, according to this widespread view, with the Piano Sonata. I'll try to explain why I think this point of view is somewhat wide of the mark in a moment, but I've also read expressions of a much rarer, contrarian point-of-view that says that Bartok's most interesting work came before 1926, including many of the works I've written about in earlier posts. Given how extraordinarily rich in musical imagination so many of these earlier works are, I can understand why the contrarians feel the urge (like me) to campaign so strongly for the pre-1926 stuff. Any account that underplays these earlier pieces is surely a misguided one. The Miraculous Mandarin is a miraculous masterpiece from before 1926, and two of my very favourite Bartok works - the opera Duke Bluebeard's Castle (1911) and the Second String Quartet (1915-17) - are some of the greatest and most pleasure-giving works of the last century. Where I fall out with the contrarians, however, is that I can't understand why they aren't in love with the post-1926 stuff too. It's different, but it's not that different. And that's the point I really want to make here.

Following his divorce from Marta (1923) and marriage to Ditta (pictured above), Bartok came back in 1926 with works that brought a few new features to his music and changed its character to some degree, but much of what you find in the Piano Sonata (and its companions) is not new in Bartok's music and sounds to me more like another evolutionary step (in a long line of evolutionary developments) rather than a revolution in the composer's style. Yes, it's a significant landmark in Bartok's output, but it's not the only significant landmark. What about the Bagatelles, or the Allegro barbaro, or the Suite, or the Etudes, or the Improvisations? All were milestones in their way, all brought something new into the composer's music. This composer's wonderful journey as a writer of music saw his style changing all the time and if you know the Third Piano Concerto, the Concerto for Orchestra and the Sixth String Quartet (all pieces from after 1939) and compare those relaxed, approachable late pieces with  the anything-but-relaxed First Piano Concerto (1926) and the tightly-constructed Third String Quartet (1927), not to mention the Piano Sonata itself, you'll know that his style underwent a lot more change in the years after 1926. He never stopped changing as a composer, which is part of his fascination for me. There are landmarks and milestones all over his output. His voice didn't break in 1926, it just sounded a bit different, again.

So much generalising, Craig! Why do I think the glorious Piano Sonata is just an evolutionary leap rather than a revolutionary double back somersault with two twists? OK, the sonata does have a Classical structure unusual since his earliest pieces, which shows that he had partly adopted aspects of the newly-dominant neo-Classicism, pioneered so recently by Stravinsky. This is certainly new, though the Sonata isn't really the work that shows this change at its clearest. (For that you need to listen to its two companions, which I'll get to after I've finished ranting! In the Nine Little Piano Pieces and Out of Doors, Bartok's renewed interest in counterpoint, which had fleetingly appeared in earlier works - usually as canons - becomes unmissable.) The first movement, for example, is in classical sonata form (yes, Mr Rosen, I know, I know!) with an exposition containing distinct themes, a development section and a recapitulation. Moreover, it sort-of follows a classical tonal plan centred around E major. The second movement is slow and in traditional ternary (three-part) form centred around C major/minor and the finale returns to E major and is in the form of a rondo. It does sound harmonically 'cleaner' that many of its predecessors, but only a bit because Bartok doesn't stop using all his favourite scales - the modes, the pentatonic scale, the whole tone scales alongside major and minor - and keeps using his other old tricks for flavouring or obscuring harmonies, such as all those dissonances and appogiaturas which he'd been putting to good use for donkeys' years. I've read accounts that either imply or even boldly state that Bartok began using some of these very things for the first time in this sonata. Not so, as you'll know as well as I do if you've been clicking on a few of my earlier links. There are some new things, such as glissandos and clusters, but these are only further tools for the composer's well-stocked kit. Ah, and he's using bitonality and polytonality, is he? Well, he'd been ploughing those furrows (on and off) for twenty years.

I've also seen reputable writers plainly stating that Bartok took the plunge into writing in a new, percussive way for the piano. As you'll also know, he'd been at that game at least since the Allegro barbaro and the lean, pared-down piano style some say this Sonata pioneered had long been an occasionally-realised ambition of his (as in his Suite, Op.14). The first movement of the Sonata certainly applies itself to pounding out motor rhythms, though they don't sound particularly machine-like me, more like an even-more barbaric allegro still strongly suffused with folk energy. It's such a thrilling movement, cocky and fierce, and for all its use of neo-Classical forms couldn't sound less like neo-Classical Stravinsky. It sounds to me like the Bartok I know and love from quite a few of the earlier works.

Is it vastly more dissonant? It's clearly highly dissonant, but then again so had been the Etudes and the some of the Improvisations, to cite just two examples. Is it more 'direct' then? Well, it does speak plainly but many movements from pre-1926 spoke plainly too. There's certainly more of a use of short motifs but alongside them you'll also hear folk-like, modal melody in all three movements. Quite a few things are said about this sonata which either assume or assert newness in Bartok's art. Doesn't the magnificent rondo finale sound to you, as it sounds to me, like only the latest wonderful take on the art of writing in the spirit of those vigorous Romanian folk dances, albeit with lots more of the spirit of the Allegro barbaro thrown in for good measure? And what of the great slow movement, with its bell-like chords (not new), its harmonic ambiguity (not that new), its expressive depth (certainly not new)? The composer of the deeply harmonically-daring Bagatelles was the composer of this movement too, not just as a matter of fact but as a fact of sensibility. Or so I hear this music.

Enough already! Please give this deeply enjoyable milestone a try!

The arrival of neo-Classicism (roll over Beethoven, heeerrrre's Bach!) is shown more clearly in the delightful Nine Little Piano Pieces. There's no complete performance available on YouTube, just a few scattered movements (played by amateurs).

The first four pieces are called 'Dialogues' and take the form of two-part inventions. No.1 will give you a flavour of how fruitfully Bach (counterpoint) meets Bartok (harmony and melody). Beguiling, isn't it? It's a favourite of mine. (Here's No.2, with its magical move into a high register near the end, and No.3, which seems to bring the first Bagatelle of 1908 into the world of neo-Classical Bartok). There's also a highly unusual take on the Classical Minuet (No.5) and a vibrant Rameau-meets-Romanian-peasants movement called 'Tambourine' (No.8), which both show how the aspects of the Baroque and Classical eras are given thoroughly (familiar) Bartokian twists. There's a lovable 'Air' (No.6), which is in the tuneful, folk-song spirit of the pieces from 1914-1920, and a stomping March (No.7), full of ostinatos and folk-like rhythms.The set closes with a substantial Prelude, 'in Hungarian style'. I love the Nine Little Piano Pieces to bits. They're such satisfying pieces on so many levels and I wish I could bring them all to you. They further prove that the Bartok of 1926 was merely bringing in something fresh to add to his pre-existing arsenal (or tool-shed might be a more appropriate metaphor), just as he had done many times before.

Of the other masterpiece from 1926 and a likeable piece from poor old 1927, well, they'll do for another post. Enough is enough!

Wednesday, 28 December 2011

Bartok V: Of Improvisations

The step taken in the Fifteen Hungarian Peasant Songs, where Bartok for the first time began to play around with genuine folksongs rather than merely 'mounting them like jewels', was taken even further in the piano piece that followed the fabulous Studies (and it's going to get a post of its own too) -- the Eight Improvisations on Hungarian Peasant Songs of 1920. 

The first Improvisation remains, however, in the easy-going manner of the Romanian Folk Dances. A beautiful folk melody is 'mounted like a jewel' to the accompaniment of fresh, beguiling harmonies in the loveable way that Bartok had been arranging folksongs for more than a decade. It's another one to treasure. What follows is a shock though. A startling dissonance crashes in, like a slap in the face. It takes a few seconds to realise that Bartok is using this as a drone beneath the first statement of the tune of his second Improvisation, which takes us deeper into the new world opened up by the Suite and the Studies. It's still got a catchy folk tune, which it repeats with a few minor (but attractive) melodic modifications, but Bartok plays around with the tempo and ends each repeat with aggressively dissonance 'cadences'. 

The third Improvisation is a beauty though, with a dreamy melody. That much is familiar. What's unfamiliar is what happens in the accompaniment, which is now much more than just an accompaniment there purely to serve the folk melody - it's full of interest in its own right, drawing attention to itself as much as to the melody. You'll hear counter melody and a surge of invented melody between the appearances of the tune. 

The fourth Improvisation is a 'scherzando' movement that sets a fast folk tune to a lively, characterful accompaniment of ostinatos. Again, you are clearly meant to pay as much attention to the accompaniment as you are to the tune. Even more significantly, the tune itself is subject to variation. It's no longer just the background that changes - and that's if it can even be called 'the background' any more. This process continues in the delightfully tangy fifth Improvisation where the tune is swung through all manner of glamorously dissonant harmonies and then fragmented through variation before a final crunching chord. The sixth improvisation features a variety of types of music within its short frame, from the tartly puckish dancing of the main (rondo-like) theme (which Bartok tweaks as the mood takes him) to the dreamy flute-like melody that soon floats by like a nostalgic memory and the dotted figure that becomes a character in its own right, plus a mysterious interlude near the end.

The seventh Improvisation, dedicated to the memory of Claude Debussy (who had just died), is the star of the set. Its dignified melody is first presented in octaves against a discreet but interesting accompaniment before being set against its own mirror image - a magical, Messiaen-like passage. The closing minute casts it elegiacally against a quiet cloth of bell-like chords. The spirited final Improvisation then bursts in, glinting like silver in the sun. Its tune is then the subject of a short set of variations, including one in the form of a canon - showing a growing interest in counterpoint (which was to become one of the key components of Bartok's later style) - before a splendidly clangy close.

Six years were to pass before another piano work poured forth from the pen of ol' Bela. Then, like British buses, three masterpieces came at once. But that's for another day.

Tuesday, 27 December 2011

First Things First

"Why K.16 should ever be performed is incomprehensible," wrote the once-influential critic and refugee from Nazism, Hans Keller (above) about Mozart's first symphony (in E flat major). He thought it was completely worthless.

Following on from the point I was making at the end of my last post, this cliché-ridden first effort at symphonic form gets a heck of a lot of airings - prime-time limelight that could be better spent introducing us to the most interesting symphonic works of all those many, barely-known contemporaries of the Big Classical Three (my hero Haydn, Young Wolfie & ol' Ludwig). Yes, instead of BBC Radio 3 broadcasting Mozart's Symphony No.1 for the umpteenth time this year (and, boy, they certainly do broadcast it a lot), let's hear something more from, say, 'The Spanish Mozart' Arriaga or 'The Polish Mozart' Joseph Zeidler - or Clementi, Krommer, Pleyel, one of the Stamitzes, Gossec, Pichl, Gyrowetz,, Wranitzky, the discoverer of Uranus Herschel, Myslivecek...and so on and so forth (as Melvyn Bragg would say).

All that said...and ignoring all those worthies...Mozart's First Symphony is a piece by an eight-year old (AN EIGHT-YEAR OLD!) who (several years later) was set to become a genius - and, for all its clichés, it's quite fun to listen to. Switch off your critical faculties, Hans, and enjoy the ride! The first movement begins with a fanfare figure answered by quiet, harmonically-shifting chords - its main theme. The second subject group is, if it makes sense to talk in this way, 'prophetic' in being a bundle of themes. The minor-key Andante potters around various harmonies without remembering to give us a tune, yet its simplicity doesn't lack listener appeal. The presto Finale has perhaps the most going for it melodically.

Now, my man Haydn's First Symphony, though aired much less often, is far superior to Mozart's - though, in fairness to Wolfgang, Joseph was 17 when he wrote it (nine years older than this young later-to-be friend). The opening Presto is in two-part (binary) form and packs its exposition with themes, starting with a rocketing main theme (p<f dynamically) across all the notes of two octaves which climaxes in horn-led fanfares. A spry melody follows, then a sparkling transition takes us to the dancing, harmonically-airborne second subject and various closing themes. This is not remotely 'prophetic' of Haydn's later tendency towards monothematicism (the use of just one theme to fill a movement). The development section is, by Haydn's standards, basic, steering various patterns into various sequences. Now, it's not great Haydn but my hunch is that it's probably as good (if not better?) than any other symphony composed in the 1750s. The following slow movement is scored for strings alone, is simple but pleasing, somewhat formal in the manner of an old, genteel dance and led by melody. Note the rhythmic surprise near the beginning of the second half and the subsequent dip into the minor. The Presto Finale comes closest to the Haydn of the future with a good tune for the strings, emboldened by the horns, and containing quacking figures (ah, Haydn's hens!), though the development section is tiny.

I won't bring up Beethoven's First Symphony (oh, I just have!), as that's a masterpiece by any standards and, thus, a very different kettle of pilchards from these two below-par efforts.

Bartok IV: Of Milestones and Mandarins (A Study in Studies)

The Suite, Op.14 gets the credit for being the piece where Bartok crossed into full-blown modernism in his piano works, but if you've listened to the Suite I hope you'll agree with me that it's not a difficult piece to listen to and, as I wrote in the previous post, it seems to me to be (for the most part) a natural progression from much of what had gone before in the composer's development. The piece that, for me, truly marks the rubicon moment came two years later - the Three Etudes, Op.18.

The Etudes are also a natural progression, of course - but the 'progressive' leap into 'modernity' seems a much bigger jump this time. So much so that parts of the third piece sounds uncannily like a foretaste of Ligeti's own etudes from over 60 years later (I'm thinking of Désordre). Moreover, when I first heard them over a decade ago, I heard lots of anticipations of Messiaen too in the second and third studies (especially in the sounds of the chords, which sound very much like what Messiaen would go on to call 'colour chords' and make a corner stone of his style). Anyone who knows Messiaen's music well and then encounters this work will have an 'Aha!' moment. Of course, Ligeti will almost certainly have had Bartok's Etudes in mind when writing his own and it's a matter of record than Messiaen knew these very pieces and was enthusiastic in general about Bartok's music - so they were only 'foretastes' and 'anticipations' in a sort-of poetic sense (i.e. not really at all!) Still, these flavours of The Future do strongly suggest just how 'advanced' the Three Etudes feel.

When I first heard the pieces I was bowled over by them. My notes from the time suggest I was swept away in astonishment by them, talking in purple prose about the experience of listening to the third study, for example, as being "like staring into the heart of a great fire". I was much younger then! (Is my prose always free from purple even now?) On rehearing them I was bowled over all over again. I'd forgotten how different they sound from every Bartok piece that had gone before and I bet quite a few newcomers who've been listening to some (hopefully all) of the earlier pieces might find these much tougher pieces than their predecessors. Partly this is due to the sheer virtuosity of the music, as well as as the extraordinary weight of sound in the work, partly also because the melodic, folk-music element is less obvious (though it's there!) and partly because the dissonance is (at times) thrust so dramatically down our ear-holes, but partly it has to be because the techniques used really are more radical than before. For those who know the pantomime-ballet The Miraculous Mandarin, these pieces belong to its world - and can be said to be studies written in preparation for that great, strange, fierce modernist score.

The stormy first Study is recognisably in the same spirit as many of the composer's earlier barbaric allegros - a ferociously-driven toccata, whose melodies and punching rhythms still audibly owe some of their character to East European folk music though, especially in the central passage, these melodic shapes get caught up and obscured by ostinatos and abstract-sounding pattern-making, like great swirls of wind and rain. The brilliant, crashing chords that punctuate the work's climaxes have something of thunder and lightning about them. This may not be too fanciful ('purple' you might say!), as Bartok was to go on to imitate nature in many of his best-known works (all those chirping insects and twittering birds at the heart of the slow movement of the popular Third Piano Concerto, for example).

The second Study opens to more swirling figures, though these are mysterious ones beneath which a no less mysterious melody treads, lost in its own dark broodings. Think Bernard Hermann conjuring up a sinister nocturnal cityscape, rain-swept with lonely figures walking dangerous streets. The menace grows as octave, trills and clangorous chords enter the scene. A climax reached, the music gradually ebbs away before stopping on an unresolved harmony.

The third study begins with  mysterious arpeggios and bell-like sounds but the tempo soon picks up and a dizzying dance of disorder begins, glinting dissonant chords careering crazily across a slippery moto perpetuo accompaniment like some unhinged premonition of boogie-woogie. The intensity slackens and a more regular tune enters (with simple dotted rhythms). It is assailed and the madness begins again. The fate of the victims in the Miraculous Mandarin seems close at hand!

The Three Etudes are richly-imagined masterpieces, worthy of comparison with such widely-played piano greats as Ravel's Gaspard de la nuit and Debussy's Images & Preludes (though his wonderful Etudes are woefully neglected too). I've barely touched on their technical advances but however seminal Schoenberg's various sets of piano pieces (such as Op.11 and Op.19) and Webern's Variations, Op27, they don't in any way surpass in achievement these Bartok pieces and the much-played Berg Piano Sonata, Op.1 is, for all its fine qualities, inferior to them. I bow to no one in my love of Stravinsky, but his piano pieces - even including his own seminal efforts, the Piano Sonata and the Serenade in A - are also in no way superior to these Bartok studies (and many of the most played ones are comparatively trivial). Of course, this can be said about many of Bartok's more experimental pieces, but this case seems particularly egregious.

Due to this unwarranted neglect, I think the Etudes need a post all to themselves!

Monday, 26 December 2011

Bartok III: Of Bears, Belts and Biskra

After the Allegro barbaro, the pace of production for Bartok's piano pieces slowed down for a while.

His next project couldn't have been more different - another For Children-style collection of teaching pieces whose title, The First Term at the Piano, tells you that they are going to be very elementary pieces, not designed for concert performance (except in schools!). You won't find a complete recording of these 18 tiny pieces (in total lasting less than ten minutes) on YouTube, but then they aren't really meant for home listening either! That's not to say that they can't be listened to at home, given that Gyorgy Sandor and others have recorded them for us.

There are no hidden pearls among the pieces, which include folksong arrangements as well as movements based on Bartok's own tunes, but there are some charming numbers nonetheless - of which I would single out pieces 6 (its main tune reminding me a little of the piano part from Schubert's Der Leiermann!),  11 (a minuet), 12 (Swineherd's Dance, a pleasant tune over a drone) and 18 (a wistful waltz). Best of all is No.14 (an unexpected two-part invention in the style of J.S.Bach.)

The pace of Bartok's output picks up sharply again after 1914 - the period where he produced many of his most pleasurable and popular pianos pieces.

The Sonatina continues to further the urge to simplicity in 'mounting' folksongs like jewels first made fully manifest in For Children. It has three movements and is based entirely on Romanian folk melodies. The first movement (my favourite) is called Bagpipers. Its magical main section (as part of an ABA structure) always makes me feel good and its spry central section (a second tune) makes for an engaging contrast. The second (one-tune) movement Bear Dance is utterly charming. The Finale (with two tunes) is lively, cheerful and elegant. Bartok later orchestrated the work as his Transylvanian Dances. (Bartok's orchestrations of his own folk arrangements are always irresistible).

I rather suspect that no Bartok work - in whatever medium - now gets more airings (on radio, in recitals and concerts) than the Romanian Folk Dances, composed in the same year as the Sonatina (1915). There's the original piano version and the orchestral version made shortly afterwards. The much-played arrangement for violin and piano was made by Bartok's friend, the violinist Zoltan Szekely. In whatever form they come, they are pure magic and I never tire of hearing them. They exemplify Bartok's 'jewel-mounting' project, setting the wonderful folk tunes against harmonies that equal them in freshness, and doing so with as much simplicity as is appropriate to the particular tune.

The set is beautifully balanced, beginning with a pair of bright and bouncy movements (Stick Dance and Belt Dance) before presenting us with a couple of slow numbers (The Stamper and Dance from Butshum) before ending with a final fast pair (Romanian Polka and Quick Dance) which hurtle us to a vibrant climax. The pace is further refined as Belt Dance, with its halting phrases, slightly slows the pace after the vigour of Stick Dance, Dance from Butshum is even slower than The Stamper and, living up to its title, Quick Dance is an even quicker dance than the fast Romanian Polka, bringing the work to a thrilling close. All of the movements have unforgettable tunes and connoisseurs can coo to their hearts' content about the unerring rightness of Bartok's choice of harmonies for each melody. The Stamper strikes a wonderfully mysterious note, with its exotic (Gypsy-influenced?) melody over a softly chiming drone effect. Dance from Butshum is warm, wistful and rather romantic and as beautiful a melody as I know. (Violinists seem to particularly love this movement. I wonder why!) Yes, it's always a pleasure to spend five minutes or so of your day in the company of Bela Bartok's Romanian Folk Dances.

Far less familiar - and never given a career-enhancing orchestration - are the Romanian Christmas Carols, a collection of twenty short pieces (divided into two series) lasting some ten minutes. I have the sense that these folksong arrangements (of colinde, the sort of Christmas songs sung by Romanian children) were particularly close to the composer's heart. If so, it's no wonder as they're a necklace of shining jewels. Don't expect them to sound like the sort of carols we know and love in Western Europe, as they sound Romanian folksongs. There are, naturally, modal tunes and plenty of strong and often unusual rhythms. Bartok's care and subtlety with his accompaniments remains a thing of wonder. Take the opening piece. Were it a song its structure would be described as being in 'modified strophic form, with the tune in the first and third 'verses' being played in widely-spaced octaves with only an occasional harmony-giving chord, whereas in the middle 'verse' the tune sings atop softly-spoken melodies. Nothing detracts from the primacy of the tune.

The first series also contains other gems, such as No.3 where the tune changes hands. This, like many of the pieces, is lively in character. No.4, however, is wistful and beautifully demonstrates (yet again) the bewitching exactness of the way Bartok places his harmonies. No.6 reveals how exotic the Romanian modes can make a melody sound. No.7 is a particularly lovely one and No.8, with its fine central modulation, is particularly exciting. No.9 is 22 seconds-worth of pure pleasure! Series II opens like a two-part invention and varies this model throughout its first three 'verses' before bringing in octaves for the climactic 'verse'. No.2 starts out like Grieg and has some especially interesting phrase lengths. Little 'spurts' found in this number also add to No.4's strong charms, along with its tasty harmonies. No.5 has a rhythmically-splendid little tune, also spicily harmonised. Nos.6 & 7 are paired, sharing a doleful and slightly obsessive tune, the second piece varying it before returning it to its original (lovely) state. No.8, with more 'spurts' is also lovely. Hopefully, the Romanian Christmas Carols will come to be much more popular as time passes and their cousins, the Romanian Folk Dances, continue their colourful march to global dominance!

It was in the immediate wake of these pieces that Bartok's music made its dramatic shift towards out-and-out Modernism. It's time for another landmark.

So far he'd successfully stripped away what he held to be the excesses of Romanticism but elements of Romantic music had lingered on, giving so many of the pieces already described an expressive quality that lovers of Romantic music could attach themselves to with no great difficulty. The landmark work is considered to be the Second String Quartet but there's a piano work from the time (1916) that shares some of the quartet's breakthrough features - the Suite, Op.14 - and which is widely considered to be one of the two most significant piano works by Bela Bartok.

In many ways it merely shows a further development of some of the discoveries Bartok had already been applying for several years - or at least that's how I hear it - but the Suite seems to have been a conscious effort to finally make the break with Romantic styles of piano writing and turn the piano into a lean, mean fighting machine. Those gorgeous broken chords that rippled beneath the glowing climaxes of some of the Dirges, for example, were consigned to the dustbin (rather than the recycling bin) of history (or at least Bartok's part of it).

For such a ground-breaking work, it's a short piece (some seven minutes long) - though that's characteristic of Bartok as a piano composer. There are four movements - Allegretto, Scherzo, Allegro molto and Sostenuto - with three fast dance movements being followed by a final slow movement. It's another of those works where the tunes, however folk-like they might sound, are straight from the brain of Bartok rather than being genuine regional folk tunes. Needless to say though, folksong remains the underlying influence.

The first movement (a favourite) is a Romanian-style dance that does so much with the limbs of its principal melody that it has eventually has to sit down with exhaustion! Its first section presents the wonderful tune in full bloom. A marvellous transition (full of fresh-minted harmonies) leads to a second section featuring a frantically circling pattern over a steady bass before the first theme returns in a broken-up fashion fashion. Bartok doesn't put a foot wrong in this movement and those familiar with the better-known works already mentioned should find it easy to take to. The Scherzo is a scurrying, mischievous, possibly malicious masterpiece and no mistake! (I've always wanted to use "and no mistake!" in a blog post!) There are ostinatos and repeated notes galore, the changeable harmonies are a treat (with lots of lip-licking dissonances) and the phrases tumble and clamber about like demonic Keystone Cops. This movement positively chuckles (or would 'cackles' be a more accurate word?) as it capers dementedly. You will doubtless spot the influence of the devil-in-music - the tritone - which pervades it and its ancestry in the Burlesques is plain to hear. The third movement evokes a wild Arab dance. (Bartok was influenced by hearing Arab music at Biskra, Algeria). I hear it as an Arab dance that takes places in the middle of a sandstorm, with exciting squalls of notes (namely ostinatos) blowing one way then another, sweeping up and down the registers of the keyboard. After a no-less wild middle section, the first section returns to new harmonies, some thumping rhythms and a freshly-imagined pianistic sound. Some full-blooded chords bring the movement to a close. Fellow Bartok enthusiast, critic and broadcaster Rob Cowan has described the touching closing Sostenuto, which follows straight on (to dramatic effect), as "a bleak, mournful elegy." (It's another favourite, by the way). It sounds to me rather like the uncertain slow echo of a waltz, aching with anxious nostalgia. It has some consoling phrases and though the harmonies are decidedly dissonant yet Bartok somehow makes them sound beautiful. Not just an important landmark in Modernist Music (capital letters required!), the Suite Op.14 is also a highly enjoyable piece of music.

From the years surrounding the Suite came the work published as Three Hungarian Folk Tunes - three short folksong arrangements composed, with one exception, in the same spirit as the Romanian-based pieces described in this post. The set gains in complexity as it proceeds, though always maintaining the listener's focus on the tune. The first piece twice sets its attractive melody in octaves to an accompaniment of harmonically-interesting chords. The second also sets its own attractive tune in octaves to an accompaniment of harmonically-interesting chords to begin with, but on repetition sets the tune against an unsettled background of countermelody before a little coda brings the little piece to a harmonious close. The third piece, and my favourite, is least typical of where Bartok was at by this stage in his development. It starts off with the tune appearing deep in the bass clef (in octaves) against sonorous, bell-like chords. The melody then moves to the middle register of the keyboard where it is harmonised at close quarters in a rather more complex but highly beguiling way (with another suggestion of countermelody). Another shift to an even higher register and the tune is repeated against yet richer harmonies before the next repeat brings in those about-to-be banished broken chords (and an initially simpler sequence of harmonies) for a rich and majestic treatment of great beauty. The harmonies grow more complex again as the piece clangs its way to a grandiose close. This movement comes surprisingly close to being in the long Russian tradition, begun by Glinka's Kamarinskayawhere a tune is repeated over and over again against a constantly shifting background. It's delightful stuff but isn't it rather at odds with the declaration of intent made by the Suite?

These years also saw the birth of yet another folksong-based work (the last of the line, as Bartok was to arrange no more folksongs)- the somewhat more familiar Fifteen Hungarian Peasant Songs. These pieces were clearly designed to be pleasing - and pleasing they most certainly are. The piece is split into four sections, being with four slow pieces grouped as 'Four Old Sorrowful Songs', followed by a short Scherzo, then a Theme and Variations (Ballade) slow movement and, finally, a Finale comprising nine 'Old Dance Tunes'. (Bartok later made a wonderfully colourful orchestral arrangement of the last two sections of the work, sadly not yet on YouTube).

All of the 'Sorrowful Songs' are lovely ones but I think the best are the first one (with its 'strummed' accompaniment) and the second one, marked 'Andante' (a favourite of mine), which is a real beauty. The charming, cheeky Scherzo is tiny but still manages to be in three sections! The theme for the short slow movement is presented in naked octaves and the variations thereon contain passages of both beauty and grandeur. The 'Old Dance Tunes' are great fun and move through various characters, ranging from the wistful to the boisterous. You will doubtless soon realise that all the wonderful tunes of this last section seem to share some features, which isn't surprising as they too are a set of variations, showing that Bartok is no longer prepared just to present the peasant tunes as 'mounted jewels', but is also prepared to play around with them. This was a significant development in Bartok's music. It blurred the boundaries between authentic folksong arranging and Bartok's own tunes for the first time. This was to lead somewhere...

(To be..yada yada!)

Bartok II: Of Burlesques and Barbarians

Continuing from where I left off...

The richness of the music that immediately followed For Children is something of a well-kept secret and is so good that it needs to be gossiped about with a vengeance. The Seven Sketches are such a well-kept secret that YouTube is yet to register their existence. So no link I'm afraid, merely words, words, words.

The opening piece, Portrait of a Girl, concerns an actual girl - Marta Ziegler, the 16 year old Bartok married in 1909 (pictured above). Marta's tune is full of charm and caprice with harmonies that are just as surprising. There's more than a touch of Debussy at the start of the melody of the second Sketch where the exploratory vein, especially concerning harmony, that was found in the Bagatelles is further explored. Called See-saw, it's a fascinating study that see-saws between two voices and two keys, being (like the first Bagatelle), a study in bitonality (or should that be 'bimodality'?). The growing influence of Debussy is one of the recurring themes of this post. It's an influence that was quickly to crescendo, be absorbed and transmuted then, because the absorption and transmutation had been so thorough, never heard as a direct influence again. The beautiful Lento that follows takes a short melodic idea for a ride through some highly unconventional harmonies, though it also touches occasionally on paths where Debussy was also walking at the time. The fourth Sketch marks an extraordinary return to the ultra-Lisztian rhetoric and virtuosity of the Elegies, though the generally dismissive critics seem to ignore what seem to me to be quite clear similarities between it and those rare but electrifying stormscapes by Debussy - it's as much an impressionistic tempest as it is a Romantic one. I find it far more satisfying than the Elegies. Bartok was never to walk that way again though and I would have to concede that it doesn't really fit in with the rest of the music in the set. (Still, never mind!) Next comes a vibrant and enjoyable Romanian Folk Song, presented three times, each time with fresh harmonies. This is followed by In Walachian style, where Bartok presents a fine tune of his own invention in the style of a Transylvanian folk tune. Little bagpipe-like drone effects add to the rustic feel of the piece. The strange little scale figures that hurtle downwards at the end of each phrase are a feature that the composer found to be common in the region. The final sketch, Poco lento, is a dreamy mixture of music that many listeners also will recognise to be Debussy-like (whole tone scales and so on) and music that could be by no one but Bela Bartok. (It's far more dissonant than Debussy, to state only the most obvious difference.) Quite why something like these Seven Sketches can be pretty much hidden from sight while far less satisfying piano pieces by the other great modernists get regular airings is nothing short of scandalous. (I must write a stiff letter to the Times!)

The Two Romanian Dances, Op.8a (not to be confused with the popular Romanian Folk Dances of 1915) are not among my favourite works from this period. They are, perhaps, to be classed as another by-way in Bartok's long and fascinating journey towards the landmark Sonata of 1926. Liszt (in Mephistophelian guise) is still a felt presence and the Dances are largely not based on actual folksongs, but instead mostly based on tunes of Bartok's own invention. It's unusual for Bartok to use his own folk-inspired melodies as if they were genuine folk tunes, but that's what he does here - though the second dance does incorporate an authentic Romanian folksong into its main theme. The first dance has the best tune - a vigorous, stamping one - which emerges growling out of the lowest registers of the keyboard. After a middle section where a gentler melody (a variant of the first) flows and ebbs over a dramatic shimmer (a passage I believe is meant to depict the sound of an instrument called the Jew's harp), the main theme returns and turns even fierier (devilish even) before the music grinds to a halt - as if the dancing peasants have tired feet. The second dance has much of the same rhythmic force (with a gentler central interlude), though it hasn't got quite the melodic appeal of its companion.

The Three BurlesquesOp.8c are fabulous. You might have to brace yourselves for a significant increase in dissonance though. The first piece, 'A Quarrel', was dedicated to his new wife Marta and is a thoroughgoing depiction of a hammer-and-tongs row. If it's about a actual row between the newly-weds then it's perhaps no wonder they eventually divorced! Much of the music develops the waspish-sounding opening figure (a six-note motif ending with a falling tritone). The initial bickering between the two hands gets ever angrier-sounding until it results in some highly dissonant chords and a plain-speaking unison phrase, all suggesting the shouting at its loudest. There's a lull based on the interval of a rising fourth which leads to an expressive melody in octaves, nagged at by its accompaniment. There's a pause, but the quarrel then begins to flare up again. The opening figure is then expanded, magnificently, into another expressive melody (with rippling broken chords in the right hand). This passionate plea exhausts itself and the row begins all over again. The music's chromaticism might lead you to expect a dissonant close, but instead Bartok ends the piece with repeated Cs played in octaves - the final one sounding (to me) like someone slamming the door!

The second piece, A Bit Tipsy, has a delightful tune. The tune is folk-like and flavoured by that most Hungarian of intervals, the fourth. The slurred effect of being 'a bit tipsy' is achieved by staggering (an apt word) the left and right hands and by continuous (here relatively gentle) dissonance. The central section reminds me of Debussy's Golliwogg's Cakewalk from Children's Corner, where Debussy mocks the opening phrase of Wagner's Tristan and Isolde. Here an arching, romantic phrase sounds as if it is being laughed at. The music then wanders around uncertainly (as if forgetting where it's supposed to be going) before the opening tune returns, now sounding positively pie-eyed!

The highly capricious third Burlesque has no title but is like a will o'the wisp with teeth. A darting rising scale fragment (heard straight away) plays a major part in creating this movement's unsettled character, though there are plenty of unpredictable accents too. The piece is melodically attractive but the tunes are forever being pestered by this buzzing figure - though the vigorous tune towards the end manages to capture it and carry it along with it towards an exciting dancing climax before the ironically-quiet ending.

The Three Burlesques are another of Bartok's barely-sung early masterpieces and should be heard far more often. As are (and should) the superb Four Dirges, Op.9a. Now I know the idea of a dirge doesn't sound like a particularly appetising proposition and the idea of four dirges in a row probably sounds distinctly off-putting, but these four pieces are some of the most beautiful things Bartok ever wrote and are life-enhancing in spite of their lamenting characteristics, so please try to get to know them.

The lamenting characteristics are ritualised, so they are not passionate outpourings in the Romantic manner. They are all slow and sonorous and float strange and beautiful melodies through magical harmonies that are generally built from the simplest chords - triads, fifths and octaves. Listen to no one who tries to persuade you that these pieces aren't strongly impregnated by the spirit of Debussy. Bartok was always open about this particular influence and the Dirges don't exactly hide their Debussyan lights under a bushel. Of course, the influence is filtered through the lens of Bartok's sensibility and not one of the pieces could have come from the Frenchman's pen, especially their melodies. They may sound a bit like Debussy but they sound even more like Bela Bartok. The folk influence is just as plain to see.

The First Dirge, beginning with beguiling falling triads, is full of gentle beauty as it slowly unwinds its wonderful melody, gaining in grandeur as it reaching its majestic ending where bells toll. The Second Dirge begins by singing its magnificent tune in unison but soon adds a succession of ever richer drone effects as the harmonic implications grow more complex. Rippling chords then enter to accompanying the tune's majestic return (in a low register). This is spell-binding music and was clearly important enough in its composer's eyes for it to be later orchestrated (to excellent effect) as 'Melody' in the Hungarian Sketches. The Third Dirge, darkest of the pieces harmonically, trudges grimly to a glowering climax before a sequence of falling phrases ever more quietly leads the piece to its place of rest. The Fourth Dirge has a dignified folk-influenced melody, a rare moment of simple (but lovely) imitation, and lots and lots of enchanting bell-like sonorities. After a fine climactic passage, the closing minute is quiet and magical.

To return to my moan from earlier, what possible good reason is there for not giving such masterpieces as the Burlesques and the Dirges their rightful share of attention, when lesser pieces by Bartok's great contemporaries get so much of the limelight?

This fascinating, fertile period in Bartok's development (as viewed through his piano works) now reaches its first famous landmark - the fierce Allegro barbaro of 1911. This is a work that does receive a lot of airings and has, thus, achieved popularity - though it's no better (and no worse) than several of the barely-heard works I've being describing and enthusing over so far. Bartok wasn't the first to use the title, as I see (from Googling) that the great, neglected French mid-Romantic maverick Alkan wrote one several decades earlier as part of his Op.35 Studies - and, remarkably, it's available to listen to on YouTube! It's believed that Bartok gave the piece this title after a hostile French critic called him a musical barbarian. It was set to become a notorious piece of  'modern music'.

Bartok's barbaric allegro was his latest attempt to give voice to the wilder side of East European folk music. (Performances that don't stress that wildness let the piece down badly). He applies many of the lessons drawn from his close study of the music of the villages - lessons he'd been putting to use in the aforementioned pieces. His tunes are based on the old modes, the pentatonic scale and chromatic folk scales (i.e. the chromatic scale with missing notes!). From them - mingled, as the music demands, with the major and minor modes we all know and love - he also formed his tangy harmonies. The barbarous element comes from the exciting, punchy rhythms, which pulsate with a vengeance, and the aggressive-sounding dissonances of so many of those harmonies, which he packs with tritones and clashing semitones. Above all though, it comes from the way the work is written for the piano - using the instrument as percussively as possible. Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring was being composed at the same time and shares some of the same features - albeit the Russian uses the orchestra rather than the piano.

The work has, however, attracted the attention of scholars for its apparent use (and, if these analyses are correct, this isn't the only use in Bartok) of structural features based on mathematical sequences, here the Fibonacci sequence. This would give the music, which sounds so full of furious folk energy, a fascinating hidden dimension. Is this alleged mathematical underpinning an early sign of the Classicising urge that was to become so strong as Bartok got older? A strong interest in making great music that uses mathematical ideas is a recurring feature in music history, from the Renaissance masters to Bach and onto Xenakis, and Bartok takes his place in that tradition. He uses them here, or so I read, to help structure his chord groupings. Would you have guessed, given how wild and impulsive the Allegro barbaro sounds? (All the caveats are there because Richard Taruskin states that many musicologists don't accept that all this mathematical underpinning really exists.)

(For Emerson, Lake & Palmer's take on the Allegro barbaro, please click here!)

Fifteen years separated this miniature masterpiece from the next major landmark - the Piano Sonata of 1926, but there were more masterpieces for piano to come in the intervening years.

(To be continued, again!...)

Saturday, 24 December 2011

Euphonious and Reassuring...Christmas over the Air-Waves

The family are gathered around the table for a light Christmas Eve meal, with wine. The lights are dimmed and the Christmas Tree is shimmering. Classic FM is on it the background, playing its listeners' favourite Christmas carols, though the concept of 'carol' stretches (with a contented sigh) to include Roberto Alagna being soulful in the increasingly popular (when did that happen?) O Holy Night by Adolphe Adam (of Giselle fame), and there's John Rutter (inevitably) with his nice and sweet Candlelight Carol. Alongside We Three Kings (my favourite carol as a child), While Shepherds Wash... and the like, plus all the Classically-trained choirs letting their hair down with pieces like Jingle Bells, there's the sleigh-bell-infested Troika from Prokofiev's Lieutenant Kije (my sister doesn't recognise the name, but I say I Believe in Father Christmas by Greg Lake (wasn't he young-looking?) and she goes, 'Oh yes!') and, slightly surprisingly (though, as it's got sleigh bells, there's no reason why it should be surprising), Delius's Sleigh Ride. Oh, and the Hallelujah Chorus from Handel's Messiah, naturally. They're snoozing now and I'm typing.

Tomorrow, Christmas Dinner and A Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols from King's College, Cambridge (BBC Radio 3) - more carols complete with now-famous descants, Cornelius's The Three Kings (yum!), a touch of holy modernity from Arvo Pärt and Sir John Tavener (oh yes, it's The Lamb), plus a little something from the wonderful Judith Weir (hurray!) and a new piece from her fellow female (now where's that smiley emoticon when you need it?) Tansy Davies, oh, and nine lessons. (Religion? Why drag that into Christmas?)

Lots that's euphonious and reassuring.

"Euphonious and reassuring"? That's a quote from a leading music critic in the UK (who, in the spirit of Christmas, shall remain unnamed) about the music of Morten Lauridsen, whose O magnum mysterium is becoming a favourite with English choirs. He meant it as a criticism. Only in modern musical criticism could the words "euphonious" and "reassuring" be used as if they were a bad thing. Lauridsen's motet is, indeed, euphonious and reassuring and that is emphatically not a bad thing. Lauridsen's style is part-Pärt and part-Poulenc, using a lot of dissonance but so gently as to sound consonant throughout. It's a beautiful piece of music.

Euphonious and reassuring. That's Christmas!

Merry Christmas everyone!

Friday, 23 December 2011

Lift up your heads...

Jessica Duchen recently put in a plea for something other than Handel's Messiah at this time of year:

But just every so often, wouldn't you like to hear something else instead, or even as well? Leave aside obvious substitutes like Bach’s Christmas Oratorio, Britten’s A Ceremony of Carols and much nice music by John Rutter; as for The Nutcracker or The Four Seasons – Tchaikovsky and Vivaldi are great, but enough’s enough.

(Amusingly, BBC Radio 3 is broadcasting Messiah tonight and broadcast Bach's Christmas Oratorio last night.)

I can't say that I mind one bit that Messiah, the Christmas Oratorio and the rest keep coming around almost with the regularity of Merry Xmas Everybody, Fairytale of New York or Lonely this Christmas, but I'm all for adding to the list of seasonal favourites. Jessica offered an intriguing list of substitutes that have been "shouldered aside by wall-to-wall Hallelujah Choruses" and inspired me to add a few suggestions of my own:  

Elizabethan composer William Byrd's Christmas motet is one of his loveliest pieces. There are many magical moments, including the lovely harmonic modulations during the fourths-based sequences at "et animalia", the attractive overlapping phrases at "Beata virgo" and the enchanting rising-scale figures at the setting of "Ave Maria". Byrd repeats the "Beats virgo" section at the end. 

From 17th Century Germany, Heinrich Schutz's style can be described (with the broadest of brush strokes) as half way between Monteverdi and Bach and his telling of the Christmas story is very special. Between its introductory and closing choruses come eight set piece 'interludes', connected by recitative from the tenor narrator. The Angel (sung by a soprano) has three movements accompanied by a pair of violas, the High Priests are accompanied by dark-sounding sackbutts  and the Shepherds are accompanied by recorders and a dulcian (an instrument that sounds like a bassoon), the latter also accompanying the Wise Men, along with violins, where its tread surely suggests camels! Herod (a bass) is accompanied by cornets. Particularly beautiful is the seventh interlude, 'Stehe auf Joseph' (for the Angel).

The 'pastoral symphonies' of Bach and Handel were just one of what seem like a multitude of such pieces, cropping up all over the later Baroque. I was going to choose Corelli's Christmas Concerto but, as that gem gets many airings, I thought I'd go for Torelli's less played Christmas Concerto instead. Lots of gorgeous string writing, lovely harmonic suspensions in the opening sections, pastoral drones beneath dancing tunes, arioso-like solo violin writing in the central slow section, plus echo effects in the finale - all good fun. Oh, what the heck, here's a link to the delicious Corelli concerto too!

Peter Cornelius, friend of Wagner and Liszt, wrote these six songs (most of which are scattered across YouTube) in 1856 and they have a charming homely quality that suits the season to a tee, with warm tunes and pleasing harmonies. I hear very little Wagner or Liszt in these songs but quite a bit of Schumann. One of the songs (which are for voice and piano), The Three Kings, became his best known piece when recast as a choral miniature. Especially winning are Die Hirten (the Shepherds) and Christkind.

A score drawn from a Gogol-based opera by a master of orchestral fantasy, this suite begins with an enchanting vision of Christmas Night, with sparkling snow and magical starlight. 

...about which I will have more to say in the future!

Fear not, said he, for this is a purely tonal arrangement of  the old German carol "Es ist ein Ros' entsprungen" for chamber ensemble that will warm the cockles of your heart like mulled wine. A second carol makes an appearance later in the piece but you'll have to listen to find out which one! The opening will (hopefully) immediately capture your heart and, though Schoenberg cannot resist the lure of intricate counterpoint later, his traditionalist impulses are lovingly revealed in this little unexpected gem.

It may be a work of youthful ingenuity (weaving a set of variations on the first four notes of the piece - a rising second followed by rising third followed by a falling third), but it easy-to-listen-to and a delight. There's the spiky rhythms of 'Herod', the rapturous ever-expanding melismas on the word 'Jesu' of the beautiful third variation and a hypnotic setting of 'In the Bleak Mid-Winter' that isn't to the famous tune by Holst!

Jessica Duchen chose the glorious Vingt Regards (for piano) for her wish-list. As I always loved this set of nine pieces for organ - and it's Messiaen's other big Christmas classic! - I would choose to add this to her list. Beginning with the glowing serenity of the opening vision of the Virgin and Child, contrasted with the joy of Mary at its heart, and the piping shepherds who then burst out dancing with delight, this is a work well worth a yearly airing (or two). 

As well as his familiar Fantasia on Christmas Carols, RVW wrote this unfamiliar large-scale Christmas cantata. It's not always very subtle (especially the 'March of the Three Kings') but it certainly is enjoyable. Much of its music is the composer at his most unbuttoned, banging out catchy tunes with thumping rhythms and primary-colours orchestration. There's plenty of jubilation, beginning with the Prologue with its hearty cries of 'Nowell!', as well as passages of grandeur, but there are also serene sections, such as the lovely unaccompanied (and very Anglican-sounding) 'The blessed Son of God' and the beautiful pastoral setting for baritone of Thomas Hardy's great poem The Oxen. 

Merry Christmas to you all!!

Bartok I: Of Boxed Sets and Bagatelles

One of my favourite boxed sets of CDs is a collection of Bela Bartok's piano music, performed by his friend and fellow Hungarian, Gyorgy Sandor. It includes most of his works for the instrument (the main omission being the  late, pedagogical Makrokosmos), thus providing a wide overview of his output. I have tendency towards the music-lover's equivalent of binge-drinking and one of the happiest months of my life was spent getting to know all the works in the collection.

Bartok is for me the most musically satisfying of the great pioneers of the Twentieth Century - more satisfying than Debussy, Schoenberg, Stravinsky, Hindemith or Webern - and the long journey he took towards his later, more classical style (finding his voice), which was most definitely reached by 1926 and the Piano Sonata, is a particularly fascinating one to follow, with all manner of unexpected by-ways and life-enhancing masterpieces.

In this post, I want to stick with some of the earlier pieces and explore the period when the adventure first really took off.

Sandor's selection begin in 1907 (thus ignoring a few early Romantic works), following Bartok's famous folksong-collecting excursions with Zoltan Kodaly (of whose music I'm also very fond), and from that year came the Three Hungarian Folksongs from the Csik District (an arrangement of a delectable piece for recorder and piano called From Gyergyo), where the beautiful, improvisatory-sounding folk melodies are set to unobtrusive accompaniments. The first, 'The Peacock', is particularly haunting.

His first masterpiece for piano, the fourteen Bagatelles of 1908, was the very next work he wrote for the instrument and marks a major step into new territory. It's a revealing biographical detail that Bartok held Beethoven in particularly high esteem throughout these formative years. Beethoven used his bagatelles to boldly experiment whilst, simultaneously, giving delight - which is what Bartok does too. What was aiming at with the Bagatelles? Unquestionably, like his hero, he was trying to to be original. He was also seeking to apply the lessons of his close study of folk song. Most obviously, he wanted to bring the modal harmonies of folk music into 'art music'. Why? Partly because the old tonic-dominant harmonies of the Classical and Romantic eras didn't fit with the tunes he'd been collecting (and which he now wanted to write for himself) but also because he got a great deal of personal pleasure from those unfamiliar harmonies and, given his character, surely wanted to share this enthusiasm with the whole world. I think it's safe to say that he was also bored with the (over)familiar harmonies of Romantic Music. He was assuredly very consciously reacting against Romanticism and all its many 'unnecessary' embellishments, trying to strip music down to its essentials. Out went virtuosity for virtuosity's sake, for instance. He was also exploring what Schoenberg would later call 'the emancipation of the dissonance', as a means to add further fresh colours to the world of harmony. His ear would almost unerringly find the right 'wrong' notes - which is more than can be said for Schoenberg and many of his dissonances, especially through repetition, come to sound consonant. Bartok, according to biographies, knew nothing of Schoenberg's contemporary radical experiments at the time, so any fleeting resemblances between their music at this stage in their respective careers is a case of sheer coincidence, or of convergent evolution. Bartok's increasing use of radical chromaticism was his own work. There were also some matters of the heart to contend with.

Bagatelle No.1 (the link leads to the first of three YouTube videos, each with a group of bagatelles) is generally described as being a study in bitonality (playing music in two keys at the same time) though it's heard as a wistful, modal tune with marked Hungarian characteristics - all those fourths - set against an accompaniment of melancholy falling figures with 'wrong notes'. It's pure poetry and a particular favourite of mine. The second Bagatelle may feature a lot of repeated major seconds in its accompaniment (usually considered dissonant, but not sounding it here) and have all manner of wayward melodic leaps, but the effect makes me think of slapstick comedy, where the comics, pretending to be tipsy, stagger, slip and slide all over the place. The third Bagatelle sets a gloomy melody under unchanging, fast-moving chromatic figures, like a worried man walking in heavy rain. Such mental images are very personal, of course, and you may find them fanciful, but this is such suggestive music that I find it hard to avoid them. The tune is formed from just five notes, confined within a tritone, and the ostinato accompaniment is also made from just five notes. After this introspective re-imagining of chromatic harmony comes a Bagatelle (No.4) that sets an authentic Hungarian folksong in rich, majestic chords (both are also favourites of mine). It's a glorious tune with some subtle shifts of mood and striking (delightful) dissonances. The other Bagatelle that sets an actual Slovak folksong is the one that follows (No.5) and is a complete contrast in mood, with a light, chattering accompaniment to the cheerful tune. There's are such charming changes of mode too. The sixth Bagatelle is deeply ambiguous harmonically and it's in numbers like this where early Bartok travels down a path that strays close to early Schoenberg, though Bartok is much more concerned than Schoenberg ever was with getting you to focus your attention on his lead melody. The piece feels deeply elegiac (and is another of my favourites). Bagatelle No.7 is the precursor of many a 'grotesque' movement by Bartok. If Grieg's trolls had distant Hungarian cousins, maybe this would be what they'd sound like after getting drunk! Many of Bartok's romps sound (to me) like people getting drunk!! The eighth Bagatelle (yet another favourite) begins by using that old expressive device, the appogiatura (when a note dissonant to the harmony resolves onto a consonance), but displaces it over an octave, so as to make it even more expressive - and strange. Chromatic colouring plays against modal writing in a very interesting way throughout this piece.

Bagatelle No.9 is even stranger - though it's meant to be a scherzo. It's played in unison by both hands and makes mysterious use of the interval of the tritone (the augmented fourth, 'the devil in music') in a way that suggests that Bartok, despite fighting against his countryman Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsodies, felt the highly experimental spirit of late Liszt in his bones. This called easily have been called a 'Mephisto Bagatelle'. Gird your loins for the tenth Bagatelle! Bartok-lovers know this sort of piece well  - the soon-to-come Allegro barbaro ('Barbarous Allegro') of 1911 (one of the most famous/notorious of the composer's piano pieces) is but one of many descendants of this piece. The fiercer kind of folk-dance stands in spirit behind it, and the fierceness is certainly a quality the composer loves to bring out. It's exciting, isn't it? There are lulls in the ferocity, and in these lulls we venture again into stranger, more chromatic valleys. (This is another favourite). Bagatelle No.11 is marked by falling phrases and it has a contrasting central section that sounds a little like someone improvising on a guitar, strumming the broken chords of his accompaniment moodily. The main theme makes engaging use of rests.

Bagatelle No.12 (a favourite, wouldn't ya know it!) is that one that sounds most like Schoenberg - specifically,  the experimental Schoenberg of the Op.11 Piano Pieces. (Pure coincidence, remember!). It begins with another glorious, gloomy melody (a sort of refrain) into which all manner of fast-repeating notes, odd gnarls of figuration and chromatic harmonies steal. Expressive melody meets somewhat menacing caprice. High, chiming figures (evoking church bells) hint at the still-some-way-off (in time) colour chords of Messiaen, and are another intriguing feature of this mysterious number. (Messiaen greatly admired Bartok.) This touch of impressionism perhaps reflect Bartok's recent discovery of Debussy - an influence that was to become much more obvious in some of the pieces that immediately followed the Bagatelles. The gloom deepens yet further in the thirteenth Bagatelle. This is an out-and-out dirge and was written to commemorate (if that's the right word!) the day the composer was dumped by his fiancée, Stefi (pictured above). The melody wanders, depressingly, over obsessive repeating chords. An an expression of feeling, it's a powerful number beautifully crafted. The closing Bagatelle sends in an insouciant melody to cheer Bartok (and us) up, but the good humour has a very heavy hint of irony about it - especially as the melody (like the one in the preceding movement) is one Bartok associated with Stefi. This giddy waltz (and what could be less 'Bartok' than a waltz?!) is so giddy as to suggest hysteria!

As Bartok finished his Bagatelles he began composing the third of the breakthrough piano works, the Ten Easy Pieces. As the title suggests, these are simpler pieces - though they aren't that easy to play and there are actually eleven of them (for contractual reasons)! They work, however, towards many of the same goals as the Bagatelles. Bartok wanted young pianists to get a feel for his kind of modern music but they aren't just teaching pieces - they are pieces for listening to and for enjoying. Some of the pieces set authentic folksongs, the others are melodies (often in folk style) from the pen of the composer.

The opening 'Dedication' of the Ten Easy Pieces is as poetic as any of the Bagatelles and an absolute gem. A sad, bare melody, accompanied by gently dissonant chords (more of those appogiaturas), is answered by mysterious chords whose whole-tone harmonies and texture really do suggest that Debussy's benign influence has arrived in Bartok's music. Peasant Song, in contrast, sets a folk tune in plain octaves. Frustration is close in character to the third Bagatelle, setting a melody that seems lost in thought over a chromatic ostinato. Slovakian Boy's Dance sets another folk tune, its first phrase as a single line, its second in octaves, before adding harmonies of variously dissonant and consonant characters. As a simple example of how Bartok sought to refresh the harmonic landscape by constantly surprising us with usual or unusual harmonies in unexpected contexts, this lively little piece is a textbook case. So would be Sostenuto, the following piece, which is like a wistful, almost anxious daydream, full of strange and beautiful harmonies. The fifth Easy Piece, Evening in Transylvania, is another absolute gem. (It must have been a favourite of Bartok's too as, many years later, he was orchestrated it for his 'Hungarian Sketches'). It has two themes - one a beautiful, nostalgic one, the other lively and jolly (both Bartok's own inventions) - which take turns to sing and dance. I'd recommend this number to any listener as a particularly good place to start with Bartok. The following Hungarian Dance is another folksong setting - short, simple and irresistibly charming. Next comes Dawn, which sets a series of chords drifting, like the sound of chiming bells gently clashing against each other, climaxing and dying away. The play of consonance and dissonance is wonderfully mysterious. Typically, Bartok infuses it all with melody. It's a wonderful piece, taking the sort of thing Grieg (the magical 'Bell-Ringing') and Debussy ('Cloches à travers les feuilles') had done with impressionistic plays of bell-sounds and making it very much his own. The eighth Easy Piece, Folk Song, sets another genuine folk melody, playing the tune straight but accompanying it with highly original harmonies. Each phrase is commented upon by a classic dominant-tonic cadence, which sounds like a series of 'amens' (blessing his modal experiments)! Easy Piece No.9, Four-Finger Exercise is particularly like Debussy, setting figures taken from the whole-tone scale swirling around a melody of Bartok's own invention. The delightful closing Bear Dance is the other piece Bartok was to clothe in orchestral colours in his Hungarian Sketches (see link above) and is another of those bitingly rumbustious dances (like the tenth Bagatelle) that were to become a Bartok speciality. The tune is Bartok's own and his both highly individual and catchy, like a folk song. The fast, repeating notes, punchy rhythms and incisive accents give the piece its drive. It's another gem from this wonderful little collection of pieces.

I mentioned "unexpected by-ways" near the beginning of the post. The next piano work - the Two Elegies - came as a great surprise to me when I first heard them, having just got to know the three pieces I've written about here. These pieces seem to take a large step backwards - or sideways. Far from stripping away all the embellishments of Romantic music, they seem to revel in virtuosity for the sake of virtuosity and have an overwhelming flavour of Liszt at his stormiest and most heroic. They come across to me as barely-alloyed ultra-Romantic rhetoric. Though there are a few signs of  'the new Bartok' (hence 'barely-alloyed' rather than 'unalloyed'!), these 'lessons learned' are overlain, buried even, by the bravura of 'the old style'. Bartok was probably trying to marry the two kinds of music and make something new again. I don't think he succeeded as the Elegies don't sound half so original as the pieces that preceded them and Bartok was only once (and then very briefly) to journey down this flamboyant by-way in his piano music again. Please give them a try though as, taken on their own terms (which is always the best way to take music), they are well worth a hearing. No.1 is linked to here and No.2 here.

Whilst working on the Elegies, Bartok was also working on a very different project - composing two cycles of piano pieces for children Children. This is said by scholars (such as Paul Griffiths) to be the true breakthrough work for Bartok, where the need to be simple helped perfect his way of setting folk tunes. All the pieces in For Children (85 in the original version, 79 in the late revision) are settings of Hungarian and Slovak folksongs and Bartok's aim was to let them speak as plainly and powerfully as possible. He described the art arranging a folksong as "the mounting of a jewel" and there are many jewels in the collection. As life-enhancing as these pieces are, however, I would recommend hearing them no more than a volume at a time - not all in one go! I'm unable to link to the whole collection but the superb fourth volume (revised version) is available complete, here (Part 1) and here (Part 2).

One number from Volume Two to listen out for is the wonderful Swineherd's Dance, which Bartok later orchestrated as the festive closing section of his Hungarian Sketches. YouTube, remarkably, has an original field recording (by the composer) of the tune and sets it next to Zoltan Kocsis's recording of the For Children arrangement which, if also listened to alongside the later colourful orchestration, will show you exactly how Bartok mounted one particular jewel. Bartok presents the tune as if it is coming towards us and then going away from us. The effect is magical. (Incidentally, this doesn't sound like a piece many children could get their fingers round!)

(To be continued...)