BBC National Orchestra of Wales – Mark Elder, conductor (BBC Music)
Recorded: Live at St. David’s Hall, Cardiff, Wales – January 11, 1992
For some reason, I thought Bluebeard was a pirate story – but, in reality, he is a violent guy who keeps marrying and murdering his wives – and then brings the next potential wife to his castle (think Sweeney Todd with less of a motive).
ORIGINAL LINER NOTES:
The early years of this century witnessed radical developments in Hungarian music and literature. Endre Ady and Bela Balazs achieved significant reforms in poetry and drama, and Bela Bartok joined forces with his friend Zoltan Kodaly to explore the riches of Hungarian folk music.
Balazs dedicated his one-act play Bluebeard’s Castle to both Bartok and Kodaly, but it was Bartok who responded more readily to Balazs’s potent symbols and storyline.
The idea of male secrecy challenged by female curiosity must have greatly appealed to him: he was, after all, a profoundly private individual whose life was underscored by powerful infatuations and deep-rooted relationships.
All three of Bartok’s stage works – Bluebeard’s Castle, The Wooden Prince and The Miraculous Mandarin – deal with some aspect of man’s relationship to woman.
Bartok wasn’t the first composer to set the story of Bluebeard to music: Gretry, Offenbach and Dukas preceded him. But the Bartok/Balazs collaboration is unique – in its narrative simplicity, the psychological force that lies behind the characters and in its very personal symbolism.
The drama is internalized, its outward manifestations merely the guides to a whole range of repressed conflicts. The descriptive power of the music equals, indeed surpasses, most other works of its kind; seven doors and seven meaningful spectacles behind them, all reflected in orchestration that is so startlingly graphic that a physical stage set hardly seems necessary.
It is for this reason that Bluebeard’s Castle relies less on its theatrical production than on its musical interpretation.
Although its musical language is firmly rooted among the somber woodlands of Debussy’sPelleas, Bluebeardhas its own spicy tang and graphic impact.
Bartok revised his original score before the 1918 Budapest premiere and continued in effect minor changes up until the Thirties.
In its final form, Bluebeard’s Castleis unquestionably one of the century’s most magnetic operatic masterpieces.
1: Prologue: auguries of darkness and desire [3:16]
2: The arrival [15:21]
3: First Door: the torture chamber [4:41]
4: Second Door: the armory [4:17]
5: Third Door: the treasury [2:17]
6: Fourth Door: the garden of flowers [4:52]
7: Fifth Door: expansive domains [6:46]
8: Sixth Door: the lake of tears [13:52]
9: Seventh Door [9:47]
It’s pretty dark, disturbing stuff – now some of those pictures of Bartok (from previous blogs here and here) make a little more sense.
Chicago Symphony Orchestra – Sir Georg Solti, conductor (London)
Recorded: Orchestra Hall, Chicago – January 1981
Yeah, now we’re talking – that’s SIR Georg Solti to you, buddy – close personal friend of Mr. Bartok!
ORIGINAL LINER NOTES:
Bela Bartok, A Personal Note (Georg Solti, London, 1981):
“When I was studying music in Budapest, I was lucky enough to encounter Bela Bartok in very varied circumstances. He was a calm and introverted man, who spoke little, but who greatly enjoyed the company of young people and who was enormously touched by their admiration. Above all things he hated intolerance, dictatorship and fascism, which drove him from the native Hungary he so loved.
First of all, I was in his piano class for a short time. He was a marvelous teacher, who never interrupted his pupils, but let them play through to the end and then took their place to show them how the piece should be played!
A little later, as a member of the jury for the Liszt Academy’s composition examinations, he had occasion a number of times to judge my compositions, which must have been particularly horrible to him!
In 1938, I turned pages for him at the first public performance of his Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion, which he played with his wife. This took place at the Budapest Opera, but sadly only the young people in the audience applauded the work and saw the true importance of such a masterpiece.
It was also at the Budapest Opera that I was able to watch him while he was supervising the production of The Miraculous Mandarin. He was very meticulous and I remember how he would stand in the hall, his metronome in his hand, checking the tempi.
When preparing these two works for the recording, I was determined that the tempi should be exactly as Bartok wrote and this led me to some extraordinary discoveries, chief of which was in the second movement of the Concerto for Orchestra. The printed score gives crochet equals 74, which is extremely slow, but I thought that I must follow what it says.
When we rehearsed I could see that the musicians didn’t like it at all and in the break the side drum player (who starts the movement with a solo) came to me and said “Maestro, my part is marked crochet equals 94,” which I thought must be a mistake, since none of the other parts have a tempo marking.
The only way to check was to locate the manuscript and through the courtesy of the Library of Congress in Washington, we obtained a copy of the relevant page, which not only clearly showed crochet equals 94, but a tempo marking of Allegro scherzando (the printed score gives ‘Allegretto scherzando).
Furthermore, Bartok headed it ‘Presentando le coppie’ (Presentation of the pairs) not ‘Giuocco delle coppie’ (Game of the pairs). I was most excited by this, because it becomes a quite different piece.
The programme of the first performance in Boston clearly has the movement marked ‘Allegro scherzando’ and the keeper of the Bartok archives was able to give us further conclusive evidence that the faster tempo must be correct.
I have no doubt that thousands of performances, including my own up until now, have been given at the wrong speed!”
BARTOK: CONCERTO FOR ORCHESTRA (Notes by: Lionel Salter):
While Bartok was ill in the USA in 1943, Koussevitzky came to his hospital room to offer him a commission for an orchestral work; in reality this had been urged by Szigeti and Fritz Reiner in an effort to alleviate the composer’s impoverished condition and his feelings of frustration, though this had to be kept secret from him, as his pride would not have allowed him to accept anything that smacked of charity.
The outcome was the Concerto for Orchestra – his last orchestral work except for the Third Piano Concertoand the unfinished Viola Concerto– which was completed in eight weeks and called for a very large orchestra, instruments often being treated “in a solostic manner,” as he said in his initial analysis.
Its first performance in Boston on December 1, 1944 was an instant success. The gratified composer wrote in a letter, “Koussevitzky is very enthusiastic and says it is “the best orchestra piece of the last 25 years’ (including the works of his idol Shostakovich‘).” The last words refer to Bartok’s pique that, while he himself had been neglected, Shostakovich’s“Leningrad” Symphony, with its “ridiculous” march theme, had, owing to wartime feelings, been widely welcomed: the Concertobears evidence of his understandable reaction.
The andante opening of the Introduzionebegins mysteriously with a characteristically Hungarian theme in the bass, built up on the interval of the fourth (which is to pervade the entire work and assume basic importance). A rhythmic theme of declamatory character develops from a flute phrase, and a rising five-note scale spanning a tritone appears, persists, and turns into the opening bar of the ensuing Allegro vivace, which is in orthodox sonata-form.
The first subject contains, in addition to the tritone scale, two rising fourths; and these (the second filled in with the intermediate notes) become the basis of a trombone theme, which is later to be taken up in two fugati.
The actual second subject, first heard on the oboe over a string drone, vacillates between two notes in a curious way. The movement as a whole is full of ingenious contrapuntal resource – including elaborate strettos and canons both forwards and in reverse – and culminates in a blazing statement by the brass of the early trombone theme.
The gay scherzo, in the printed score entitled Giuoco delle coppie, is in fact, int he composer’s manuscript, headed Presentando le coppie. A side drum without snares (in a rhythm about which the autograph reveals that Bartok had at first been undecided) ushers in the instruments, which trip on in pairs; the bassoons in sixths, the oboes in thirds, the clarinets in sevenths, the flutes in fifths, and the (muted) trumpets in major seconds.
The brass, accompanied by the side drum, then pronounce a benediction over the couples in the form of a short chorale (the opening notes of which are ingeniously derived from the closing line of the first movement) after which the instruments return in the same order as before, but this time fructified by additional instruments of their own (or similar) kind pattering along beside them, mirroring their activities or interlocking with them. A final cadence combines all the original instruments, in their initial relationships into a single chord.
The Elegiaharks back to the start of the Concerto, and uses among its kaleidoscopically-presented, folk-like material both the motif in fourths and the “declamatory” theme from the Introduzione.
The scoring is impressionistic – an example of the “night music” which consistently obsessed Bartok – and at the end of the solo piccolo’s repeated single notes recall the repeated xylophone notes in the Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta.
The fourth movement is basically an Intermezzoin which two folk-like melodies of flexible, wayward shape alternate. But halfway through comes a rude interruption. The clarinet forgets itself so far as to wander into a burlesque of the notorious march-tune in Shostakovich’s“Leningrad” Symphony (with a half-recollection of The Merry Widow at the back of its mind): it is greeted with jeers and catcalls from the orchestra, which then strikes up a German-band oom-pah bass over which the violins join in with the tune and are rowdily mocked by the wind; the tuba gives a final elephantine echo of the clarinet’s original lapse of taste.
Order being restored, the serene Intermezzois resumed and, after short flute cadenza, ends with fragments of the first theme.
The Finale, the most considerable and brilliant movement of the Concerto, begins (after a brief horn-call) with a bustling perpetuum mobile in the strings, and throws off numerous thematic motifs, the most important of which is a trumpet theme that is extensively developed: it becomes the subject of a fugue, and is treated in inversion, stretto, augmentation, diminution and every other contrapuntal ingenuity.
There is an abbreviated recapitulation, and the movement ends with a short coda after the trumpet theme has been hammered out in triumph by the full brass.
BARTOK: DANCE SUITE:
The Dance Suite dates from exactly twenty years earlier. To celebrate the 50th anniversary of the amalgamation of the towns Buda and Pest, works were commissioned from three Hungarian composers (each in his forties at the time).
These were played at a concert on November 19, 1923, which began with the Festival Overture by Dohnanyi, who conducted on that occasion: his piece has sunk virtually without a trace, but the other two works stand among the brightest jewels in their native repertoire.
Kadaly’s masterpiece, the Psalmas hungaricus, besides evoking a period of tragic strife in his country’s history, also expressed something of his own bitterness at his treatment by politically-motivated adversaries; but Bartok, who had suffered similarly from hostile attacks, and who moreover was in the midst of emotional crises in his domestic life, rose above these to produce a composition whose joyousness and immediacy of impact – not to speak of its brilliant construction – have ensured its lasting popularity.
It was soon taken up very widely – in Cincinnati, Prague, London (at a Henry Wood Promenade Concert) and throughout Germany – and when Vaclav Talich conducted it with his Prague orchestra in Budapest in 1926 the entire work, at the public’s insistence, had to be encored.
1-5: Concerto for Orchestra [I – 9:00; II – 6:05; III – 6:30; IV – 4:01; V – 9:30]
6: Dance Suite [15:52]
If you read through that (very informative, I thought) you definitely don’t want to read anything further from me. Go on with your lives! A brilliant recording and ANOTHER 88!
Recorded at the Rottenbiller Street Studio, Budapest from January 16 – 22, 1994
Sometimes, even though you wash your hands over and over again, you just can’t get the stink out – that’s how I feel about the Arensky String Quartets – I want them to be clean and smell good but every time I listen to them, I can’t get the stink out. (I realize that should be three sentences but I used dashes instead to preserve my one-sentence format – sorry.)
ORIGINAL LINER NOTES (by Keith Anderson):
The son of keen amateur musicians, his father a doctor, Anton Arensky was born in Novgorod in 1861. His musical abilities were encouraged by his parents and he had his first piano lessons from his mother.
As a child he had begun to write music and when the family moved to St. Petersburg he was able to take more consistent musical instruction and after some preparation, in 1879 to enter the Conservatory, where his teachers included Rimsky-Korsakov for composition and Johannsen for counterpoint and fugue.
He was entrusted with the preparation of a piano reduction of the former’s opera The Snow Maiden and under Rimsky-Korsakov’s supervision began work on his own first opera A Dream on the Volga, which was later completed, to be staged in Moscow with some success in 1891.
His teacher, however, saw no great future for the works of his pupil, considering any success achieved likely to be transitory. This prediction has not proved true in every respect, since some, at least, of Arensky’s works have maintained a secure if limited place in standard orchestral and piano repertoire.
Arensky completed his studies at the Conservatory in 1882 and at once took up a position at the Moscow Conservatory as a teacher and later as professor of counterpoint and harmony. There his pupils included Rachmaninov, Gliere, Conyus and Scriabin, and there was fruitful contact and friendship with Tchakovsky and Taneyev.
He appeared as a conductor at concerts, notably of the Russian Choral Society, and his connection with church music led to his appointment, on the recommendation of Balakirev, as director of the imperial chapel in St. Petersburg, a position he took up in 1895 and held until 1901.
His final years left him free to follow a career as a composer, pianist and conductor, brought to an end in part through his dissolute way of life. He died of tuberculosis in 1906 at the age of forty-five.
In style and technique Arensky owed much to his teachers. He developed a sure command of harmonic, contrapuntal and structural musical resources, with a lyrical facility.
These elements are at once apparent in his String Quartet No. 1 in G major Opus 11, written in 1988. This shows, from the first bars, an easy understanding of the medium of the string quartet and of the possibilities still inherent in the traditional first movement form.
The second movement opens with a melody of fine contour, before a contrapuntal element is introduced by the cello, followed by the other instruments, and a treatment of the principal melodic material with more elaborately contrapuntal accompaniment.
The mood changes with a light-hearted Menuettoand contrasting Trio.
A Russian element makes its appearance in the Finale, with its variations on a Russian theme. These bring their surprises, not least in the traditional folk texture suggested by the plucked accompaniment in one variation and the later fragmentation of the theme, before a cadenza and the return of the theme in a mood of mounting excitement, leading to an emphatic and vigorous conclusion.
Arensky’sString Quartet No. 2 in A minor, Opus 35, was written in 1895 and in its first movement presents a more somber atmosphere, lightened by secondary material, dramatically developed, but returning to its initial mood.
The theme of the second movement is stated simply, before its elaboration in a series of variations with the theme taken by each instrument in turn, before the possibilities of plucked strings and further textural resources are explored in a spirit that ventures far from the original material, sometimes with the energy of a scherzo, then relaxing into a gentler lyrical and eventually somber mood.
The third movement continues in its opening bars the Russian idiom, already heard in the theme of the second. The introduction is followed by what promises to be a vigorous fugue, on a Russian subject, superseded by a reminiscence of the melancholy of the opening of the quartet and followed by an energetic and triumphant conclusion.
The Piano Quintet in D major, Opus 51, was written in 1900.
The piano starts the first movement, soon joined by the string instruments in a historic opening of a texture that recalls that of Schumann’s Piano Quintet. Here, too, the piano plays a virtuoso part, whether in accompaniment or in the statement of thematic material.
The second movement is again in the form of a theme and variations, the former entrusted first to the strings, before the lyrical intervention of the piano, followed by a turn to the more dramatic, a change of mood to the solemn and then to the lyrical. The piano moves on to a recreation of Chopin, in romantic partnership, and then to music of greater vigor, subsiding into the language of the opening.
The capricious Scherzobreaks in, interrupted in its turn by a peaceful trio that brings momentary serenity here and when it returns after a repetition of the Scherzo, which itself has the last word.
A subject of Baroque contour introduces the last movement fugue, but the rigors of counterpoint are later submerged in a thoroughly romantic conclusion.
1-4: String Quartet No. 1 in G Major, Op. 11
5-7: String Quartet No. 2 in A Minor, Op. 35
8-11: Piano Quintet in D Major, Op. 51
Look, I’m not going to slam Arensky too much here (he got enough of that in his life from the asshole Rimsky-Korsakov) but considering he was living a pretty wild life away from work (gambling, drinking like a fish, etc. etc.) the String Quartets are pretty boring. I’ll cut the Piano Quinteta little more slack because I just love piano quintets as a genre (for my money, there is nothing much better than the Shostakovich Piano Quintet – which I’ll get to in about two years!). Unfortunately for Arensky and his legacy – these are works you just don’t want to listen to that much.