After his early days when Debussy and Richard Strauss were considerable influences on his music, especially in the opera Bluebeard’s Castle, Bartok’s more mature music, the music that he is best known for, is marked by the folk music of his native land and what might be called ‘expressive dissonance’. His music became percussive, eastern European rhythms dominated. But from 1939 onwards, the expression and harmonies became gentler, more accessible to ears used to less harsh harmonies and rhythms.
It so happened that in the concert given on March 18 in Blackheath Halls by the Trinity College of Music Symphony Orchestra all three works were composed by the ‘gentler’ Bartok. Curiously, these works did not reflect the more ‘dissonant’ events in Bartok’s life: his flight from Europe to America, his penurious existence, increasing bad health and death in 1945 at the age of sixty-four. The long programme consisted of the 1938 Violin Concerto, the 1945 Piano Concerto No. 3 and the 1943 Concerto for orchestra.
Of the three works, the Concerto for orchestra stands out as perfect; it is like a symphony in five movements yet also a showpiece, as you might expect, for an orchestra. There were a few very minor faults of intonation, ensemble and a lack of virtuosity, but only minor ones. This was a performance that tingled with energy and understanding, the more extraordinary, since the conductor Zsolt Nagy had only three days with the Trinity students.
Mind you, he is an experienced director, well able to pass on his expertise and feeling for the music of his countryman. The violins sounded passionate, led by Tadasuke Lijima. The orchestra plays on the flat in this hall and although one heard the higher sounds and the percussion well, much of what was played in the middle registers was not clear; the violinist, hailing from Slovenia but now living in London, Lana Trotovsek, had the measure of the concerto, musically and technically; likewise the Russian pianist Mikhail Shilyaev. The slow movement of the piano work is marked religioso, a pallid adagio whilst the finale of the violin concerto seems to try too hard and runs out of steam.
Even when he was so broke in New York that at one time he stayed in his flat because he lacked a tip for the lift man, Bartok was too proud to accept charity. The violinist Joseph Szigeti told me that the conductor Serge Koussevitsy only got the composer to accept some money by saying that his commissioning foundation insisted on making a down payment. The première of the Concerto for orchestra in Boston, conducted by Koussevitsky, was a success but during the final afternoon rehearsal one of two ladies in the audience, members of the blue rinse brigade was heard to say “Gee, conditions must be terrible right now back in Europe”.
In the fourth movement there is a passage where Bartok hoped to parody the Leningrad symphony of Shostakovich but when he slyly asked the conductor Antal Dorati if he recognized the tune he was horrified that Dorati said “yes, its Lets all go to Maxims from the Merry Widow”. Which of course it could also be.