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Peter Stenshoel reviews Bartok: Concerto for Orchestra, Fritz Reiner and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra

Jerry Gorin/KPCC

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This record was my initiation into the troubled world of the twentieth century. I was four years old and fascinated by what I heard coming from our new Daddy-assembled stereo console. I could not give voice to the deep and complex emotions I felt when confronted with Bartók’s admixture of folk scales, split-meter, dissonance, consonance, and constantly shifting timbre, but I knew I craved the experience, again and again, so this became oft-requested bedtime music from me.

Amazingly, this vibrant document began with a visit to a New York hospital room where Béla Bartók, a depressed and impoverished refugee of Nazi-occupied Hungary, was suffering a mystery ailment. His friend, Fritz Reiner, alarmed that the composer’s spirits were sinking, had secured the money to commission a piece of music for orchestra. Recuperation at Saranac Lake in the Adirondacks provided the impetus Bartók needed to finish what was justly termed, “the best orchestral piece of the last 25 years.” One could add “for the next 70 years,” given that this October is the 69th anniversary of its composition, and I am unaware of anything that can touch the deft mastery, the starkly beautiful invention, and the cogent voice of modernity, that Concerto for Orchestra evinces.

From his Mikrokosmos piano primers to his ground-breaking string quartets, Bartók was a fully-engaged composer. His folk music collecting trips with pal Zoltan Kodaly in Romania and Hungary helped document (on cylinders!) a music that is now alive and strong again. Cinema buffs owe (or can blame) Bartók for, I am certain, inspiring Bernard Herrmann’s famous shower scene score in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. The screeching violins had been predated in Bartók’s string quartets. A master composer like Herrmann had surely studied those scores.

Two more comments: one musical, the other gossipy. Concertos are typically devoted to a single solo instrument backed by an orchestra. The soloist dazzles us with pyrotechnics and poetry. Occasionally, double concertos feature two instrumental soloists who interweave. Bartók takes the whole orchestra, and, section by section, features specialities and sonorities of each. (Leonard Bernstein has a brilliant Young People’s Concert devoted to explaining this.) 

And now to the gossip. While Bartók was working on his Concerto, Dmitri Shostakovich’s Leningrad Symphony (No. 7), a tribute to the city and a symbol of Soviet resistance to Nazi totalitarianism, was getting plenty of radio play and acclaim. Bartók was not having any of it, particularly the march which repeats twelve laborious times in the first movement. So in Bartók’s fourth movement of the Concerto, an achingly lovely memory of his native Hungary, now in Nazi clutches, Bartók has Shostakovich’s march crash in! Then in a few short measures he gives it far richer treatment than found in the original. It’s an unmistakeable mocking and one-upmanship. (You’ve got to wonder if Dmitri’s son, conductor Maxim Shostakovich, would ever consent to conducting Bartok’s work, given this sleight to his father.) But the poor and neglected Béla Bartók knew he should have been given those accolades instead. 

Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra did give him accolades, resoundingly so, but he succumbed to death before new plans could be realized. It’s the world’s loss.