Classical Notes

Sonata Recital: Joseph Szigeti and Bela Barto

Beethoven: Sonata # 9 in A Major, Op. 47 ("Kreutzer")
Bartok: Rhapsody # 1 for Violin and Piano
Debussy: Sonata for Violin and Piano in g minor
Bartok: Second Sonata for Violin and Piano

Joseph Szigeti, Violin
Bela Bartok, Piano

Library of Congress, Washington, DC
April 13, 1940

Vanguard Classics OVC 8008

Most of us tend to think of chamber music as a sterile affairtreble clef graphic in which refined musicians gently amuse a staid group of corseted ladies and starched gentlemen amid lavish splendor. Pretty dull stuff. A few minutes of this disc should forever demolish such an absurd myth.

This is, quite simply, one of the greatest concerts ever recorded. Blazing with passion, it ranks right up there with Benny Goodman at Carnegie Hall, James Brown at the Apollo, the Allman Brothers at the Fillmore, or your own sweat-drenched favorite. As with most such events, its supreme quality arose from a unique confluence of forces, a single moment in time that would never recur.

Joseph Szigeti, one of the most acclaimed violinists of the century, was a fervent advocate of modern music. Bela Bartok was not only an accomplished pianist but one of the most influential composers of his era.Bartok and Szigeti Both were life-long friends, allied by their ardent nationalism and anti-fascism, who emigrated to America. Szigeti came first. Bartok arrived on April 11, 1940. This recital two days later was their first in the New World.

Both deeply loved their native land. Each had devoted decades to collecting and perpetuating its musical traditions and had become Hungary's greatest musicians. Although now physically safe in America, they were keenly aware that the world they had left behind was on the brink of extinction. It was with that crushing burden that they transplanted their culture to a new, hopefully temporary home, in the symbolic form of a recital at the Library of Congress, the shrine of intellectual freedom. (Although Szigeti lived until 1973, Bartok would die in exile in New York in 1945, never again seeing his country.) Both the style and the content of the recital seethed with emotional significance. This concert was nothing less than a deeply personal plea for an entire culture that was about to evaporate.

Both musicians were not only ideal spokesmen and advocates for their national music but exemplified the entire Eastern European approach to interpretation, perhaps the most viscerally exciting of all classical performing traditions. Intonation, rhythm, dynamics and texture all become wildly distorted to produce an uninhibited gypsyish emotional effect. While such stylistic matters are hard to describe, the first minute of the Bartok Rhapsody will explain this unbuttoned approach better than a thousand books.

The style is no longer familiar and takes considerable adjustment for modern ears. At first, it sounds sour. Fingers and toes can be exhausted in a matter of seconds keeping count of all the "wrong" notes. But are they really wrong? Not at all. As with blue notes in jazz or microtones in blues, this music yields to emotion. The bent notes are not mistakes, but rather the expressive means by which the artists convey their unbounded feelings.

Admittedly, this is not the accepted way to perform classical music. By what right do these performers so arrogantly distort the published score? For two of the works performed here, the answer is obvious: Bartok wrote them and considered Szigeti to be their foremost exponent. This disc documents nothing less than the creator's legacy. Any differences between the score and these unbridled preformances clearly yields to the latter as a living, breathing record of the composer's intention.

Records such as these are far more accurate than a written score to preserve and communicate to performers of the future just what the composer wanted. The standardized signs used in our Western system of notation become virtually meaningless to describe such instinctive artistry. (Indeed, the intrinsic problem with all music notation is that it is utterly incapable of conveying the human element.)

But what of the Beethoven? Perhaps some of his music would be badly bruised by Bartok and Szigeti's impassioned temperament, but not the Kreutzer. Written in 1803 amid fits of suicidal depression over his advancing deafness, the first movement constantly fights the confines of its form with explosive outbursts and forever changed the scope of chamber music, much as his contemporaneous Eroica redefined the symphony. As if to emphasize the work's revolutionary import, Bartok and Szigeti hurl themselves into the Kreutzer with total abandon.

And Debussy? Well, it takes one to know one. Although a generation and cultures apart, Debussy and Bartok were pioneers of twentieth century music. This is clearly not a traditional, diffident French performance of the mold ineffably stamped by Thibaud and Cortot in 1929 (on Biddulph LHW 006 or Pearl 9348). But Bartok and Szigeti's highly-charged approach is nonetheless revelatory and highly valid, both on its own terms and as a sincere tribute from one great composer to another.

Aside, of course, from the Hungarian folk music which he transformed into strikingly modern conceptions, Bartok once identified Bach, Beethoven and Debussy as his greatest influences. Although we have seem to have none of his Bach, here we have Bartok's views of his other two great mentors, together with the manner in which he melded their inspiration into two of his own compositions. His Rhapsody is irresistably dance-like, while the Sonata # 2 is aggressively spiky. In a single evening, Bartok bequeathed us a stunning example of the creative process.

The CD is derived from the same acetates as the earlier issues on Vanguard VRS 1130/1 and Everyman SRV 304/5. While surface noise is barely noticeable, the sound remains rather dim. But such considerations hardly seem relevant. What we have here is not a quaint historical artifact of passing interest but a direct window on perhaps the most fascinating classical performance tradition of our century, fixed in time for one final moment just before it was to be irreparably compromised by war and cosmopolitan influences. This is pure, unadulterated ethnic music, every bit as raw and powerful as urban blues or gut-bucket jazz.

So if you think of chamber recitals as pallid stuff, you owe it to yourself to hear this disc. It will broaden your horizons, like hearing Robert Johnson or Jimi Hendrix after a lifetime of thinking the Singing Nun was the height of guitar artistry.

Peter Gutmann

Copyright 1995 by Peter Gutmann

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