The Dances of Galánta, inspired by the eponymous small market town in western Hungary where Kodály spent seven childhood years, is probably his most popular composition. At the end of the nineteenth century a famous Rom band played there, and their sonorities no doubt impressed themselves on him. Yet his main source for this 1933 composition was a Viennese publication containing some music ‘after several gipsies from Galánta’. This music was in the verbunkos (recruiting dance) tradition most widely cultivated by Romani bands from the eighteenth century on. Written for the 80th anniversary of the Budapest Philharmonic Society, The Dances of Galánta are characterized by rondo-form construction and a brilliant, Debussy-influenced orchestration that captures the spirit of the original.
Béla Bartók (1881-1945) wrote his Music for Strings, Percussion and Celeste (1936), Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion (1937) and the Divertimento (1939) just before World War 2 at a time of gathering gloom in Europe. The first of these pieces, composed in the summer of 1936 for the Swiss conductor Paul Sacher and the Basle Chamber Orchestra on its tenth anniversary, is rightly regarded as the most significant of his chamber orchestra works, displaying as it does Bartók’s highly-developed techniques of variation and an amazing economy of means. The premiere took place in Basle on 21 January 1937. The instrumentation is both unusual and challenging: a double string orchestra with celeste, harp, piano, xylophone, kettledrums and a miscellaneous collection of percussion under the control of one player. The common title of the work in English, however, Music for Strings, Percussion and Celeste, is somewhat misleading since the word in the original German title, ‘Saiteninstrumente’, refers to instruments that have strings but which are not necessarily bowed, such as the harp, and while technically the piano is a percussion instrument it operates through the striking of strings by hammers. Bartók himself only finalised the title as he evolved the conception of the scoring. The placement of the orchestra on the stage has the two groups of string players separated by the other instruments which are placed centrally, and this spatial relationship gives a sense of three-dimensionality in performance. Bartók uses the string instruments both antiphonally and in combination, with and without the percussion instruments, all of which are sounded in original and imaginative ways. This recording uses a smaller orchestra than is customary, one specifically allowed by Bartók in a letter of 1936 to Max Adam, in which he mentions that Paul Sacher had 30 string players available and that this was sufficient. The only proviso was that the two string orchestras should have equal numbers. Comparable to Sacher’s original forces, the present recording uses 34 string players who are equally divided into five first violins, four second violins, three violas, three cellos and two double basses for each orchestra.
The less severe Divertimento was also written for Sacher and the Basle Chamber Orchestra, who gave the premiere in Basle on 11 June 1940. Its three movements were written in just fifteen days and the work was completed on 17 August 1939. Its two bright, joyful outer structures enclose a sombre Adagio. On the whole the piece is more akin to the Dance Suite of 1923 in its amiable and carefree moods: harmonies are mostly triadic, and the counterpoint is clearly delineated. Only the central movement is darkly introspective, perhaps reflecting the news that Bartók’s mother was now seriously ill. In this work the composer seems to look back to the concerto grosso of the eighteenth century, with its concertino of solo instruments and a ripieno consisting normally of an orchestra of strings. But his conception was not a retrograde, ‘antique’ one that imitated the earlier genre. The first movement is a sonata form, the finale is again rondo-like, and the Adagio is in four sections of which the first and last match each other.
Rhythmically the first movement is predominantly in 6/8 and 9/8, metres that are not especially common in Bartók’s compositions (nor in Hungarian folk music). The main theme of the first movement is a relatively simple melody in the violins over pulsing quavers. The basic tonality is F major, with a hint of the Lydian mode in the harmonic support. A second thematic idea in A major appears, but the tonality thereafter melts through bitonal harmonies and gradually, at the development, turns into B-flat. Most of the development uses imitation, with intermittent five-part canonic writing and the contrast of solo and tutti passages. The recapitulation varies the main melody, its tranquil mood ruffled only by a short passage of imitative chromatic writing before drawing serenely to a close.
The Adagio that follows changes the mood entirely with its anguished melodic turn of E#-G-F#, which is developed into a twisting line over an oscillating quaver bass. In the second section the violas create a dramatic statement in a marked rhythm reminiscent of a Hungarian Old Style melody, and a third section sees the return of the first theme, the pianissimos of the coda punctuated by passionate exclamations. The finale is one of Bartok’s brilliant dance-like conceptions, with a scampering main theme and a double fugato that forms the central section. Following a cadenza pause by the solo violin the main melody reappears, this time inverted. Later, Bartók introduces a cheeky parody of a polka, a satirical comment on café-music that is rudely interrupted by swirling violins in a triplet figuration leading to a vivacious coda. James Porter: 2004
Recorded at the Usher Hall, Edinburgh 29th February & 1st March 2004 (Bartok) and at Greyfriars Church, Edinburgh 7th March 2004 (Kodaly)
Engineered by Philip Hobbs and Calum Malcolm
Post Production by Julia at Finesplice
SA-CD mixing by Philip Hobbs and Calum Malcolm