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!)

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