ollavogala

– Composer: Béla Viktor János Bartók (25 March 1881 — 26 September 1945)
– Orchestra: Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra
– Conductor: David Zinman
– Soloists: Nelson Freire and Martha Argerich (pianos), Jan Labordus and Jan Pustjens (percussion)
– Year of recording: 1985

Concerto for Two Pianos, Percussion and Orchestra, Sz. 115, BB 121, written in 1940.

00:00 – I. Assai lento – Allegro molto
13:31 – II. Lento, ma non troppo
20:45 – III. Allegro non troppo

The composition date given in the headnote is slightly misleading: yes, Bartók produced this effort in 1940, but it is an arrangement of the 1937 Sonata for 2 pianos and percussion. While for some time the chamber version may have been the preferred one, especially among critics, the orchestral rendition eventually became the more popular choice in concert halls and the recording studio.

Bartók had originally conceived the work for solo piano and percussion, but felt a second keyboard would supply sufficient sonic heft to provide the proper instrumental balances. Largely because of the work’s success at its debut on 16 January 1938, the composer decided to arrange it for orchestra, changing relatively small portions of the piano and percussion scoring.

– The first movement opens mysteriously (Assai lento), the pianos introducing the cryptic, terse main theme, or motif. As the music builds via intervallic accumulation, there are explosions from the percussion, and after an imaginative march-like episode on the pianos the tempo changes to Allegro molto. The colors brighten here and a brilliant, rhythmic theme, growing from the opening motif, is given by the pianos, later to be played colorfully by the xylophone. A second theme of less-aggressive character appears, and there follows an imaginative and complex development section. In the latter part of the first movement a brilliant fugue is given, wherein the piano writing is quite virtuosic, hands going in opposite directions on the keyboards, notes filling the air with tension and momentum. A dramatic coda, itself roiling in tension, closes the movement with emphatic resolution.
– The second movement is an elegy whose mesmerizing music, marked Lento ma non troppo, recalls the middle movement of the composer’s Piano Concerto No. 1 from 1926 (uploaded on this channel), also a percussion-laden affair. The middle section here breaks from the elegiac mood of the opening and closing with agitated music, offering fine contrast to the nostalgic main theme.
– The third movement is a rondo, marked Allegro non troppo, that features two quite memorable themes. The first has an arched contour, rising and descending jovially on the keyboard, while the next one is presented emphatically by the xylophone, sounding humorous and intentionally stiff in its march-like manner. There is a brilliant but terse development of the main theme in a fugato episode, and the work ends with a subdued coda.

This concerto has attained a measure of popularity, but still remains largely on the fringes of the repertory, owing in part to the two-piano scoring. Relatively few virtuosos from any period devote their time to works like this unfortunately; this superlative performance by Freire and Argerich is one of the few.

Adagietto

Pyotr Il’yich Tchaikovsky – Romeo and Juliet, fantasy-overture for orchestra in B minor, 1880. Maestro Valery Gergiev with the London Symphony Orchestra.

Numerous composers have responded to Shakespeare’s timeless drama of forbidden and youthful love, but Tchaikovsky’s response (along with Berlioz’s and Prokofiev’s) is at the top of the list. It is the only one of the three to be intended as a number in a symphony concert, and, hence is by default the most famous of the lot.

Tchaikovsky, a lawyer, was still developing as a composer at age 29 when Mily Balakirev (self-appointed father figure to Russian composers) persuaded him to write an orchestral work on the subject of the “star-cross’d lovers.” Balakirev outlined the form, planned the keys, and even suggested some of the actual music. After the 1870 premiere, he convinced Tchaikovsky to revise it. The work’s success in this form did much to transform the composer’s tendency toward crippling doubt into useful self-criticism. (Not that the transformation was ever total; Tchaikovsky suffered bouts of depression and self-doubt throughout his career.) The composer revised it again in 1880; this version is almost universally the one played. While the final version is probably the best one, the 1869 text is also a fine work and very much worth hearing. The earlier version begins with a charming tune that carries elements of the great love theme. In the first and second revisions Tchaikovsky eliminated this and replaced it with the benedictory theme representing Friar Laurence. The effect of this change on the overture’s structure is large. The first version seems to begin with Juliet still in a relatively childlike state, but with the potential for the great love present in the disguised premonitions of the love theme. The focus is, therefore, on the development of the drama as it unfolds. The later versions, beginning as it were with a prayer, seem to invite the hearer to look back on a tragedy that has already happened. Both versions proceed identically through depictions of the clashes between the houses of Montague and Capulet, and then unveil the great love music. After that, though, Tchaikovsky’s original idea seems to this writer to be superior: There is a great development, fugal-sounding and allowing for contrapuntal conflict based on the overture’s main rhythms and themes. It is tremendously exciting, more so than the music which replaced it. Justification for dropping it might be made along the lines that the original version has too much dramatic weight and overshadows the rest of the music. The main differences thereafter are in details of scoring, and in the finale, which in the original version is much too curt.

It is often instructive to see what a great composer has done at two different times with the same ideas and material. Whether or not it has greater musical merit, Tchaikovsky’s blessing of his final version served to ensure that it is the one that prevailed, and in that form it is accepted as one of the greatest programmatic pieces in the symphonic repertoire. The yearning love theme, in particular, is universally acknowledged as one of the greatest melodies ever written, while the exciting fight music and Tchaikovsky’s unfailingly clear and imaginative orchestration carry the listener through with hardly a misstep. But the original version is not far behind it in musical worth; it should be given more frequent revivals, if only for the sake of hearing the great fugato passage described above.

Jose A. Clavell·

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José Clavell, Conductor

Lyrics by: e.e. cummnings
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