Bartók Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta, and Concerto for Orchestra

Little did Bela Bartók suspect that his Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta would become perfect for accompanying spooky films by the creators of Being John Malkovich, Stanley Kubrick, and various American, Australian, dramatic and documentary flicks. Perhaps the Hungarian composer should have settled in Hollywood, where he could have had a fine career as a film score writer.

For the final disc in their Bartók trilogy on BIS, Susanna Mälkki and the Helsinki Philharmonic have recorded Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta, and the Concerto for Orchestra. While their playing is unimpeachable, I still find Bartók’s music impenetrable.

The first movement of Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta is strange enough what with its antiphonal, atonal and somber structure. The second one- a nervous Allegro that puts the seven-player percussion section to work full time perseveres in the pervading strangeness. The third movement, still another Adagio is frenetically driven all for naught. The final Allegro Molto, with still not a melody within earshot, proves that Bela Bartók could set up two string orchestras seated on opposite sides of the stage, with percussion and keyboard instruments in the middle, and still not succeed in developing an audience for his brand of music.

In the case of Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra we are in somewhat similar terrain. Divided into four sections, the 1943 work commissioned for the Boston Symphony Orchestra still repeats  some of the same ideas the composer used in the 1936 Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta: moodily quiet sections followed by sudden outbursts of orchestral fortissimo with a sprinkling of Magyar modal folksiness, fugues that start and then go nowhere, a scarcity of true melodic inventiveness, quasi tonal passages that cannot quite decide what musical deity they worship: Second Viennese School, maybe? Not really.

If by now, dear reader, you have still not decided to stop reading my comments I encourage you to go ahead and cut me lose. For my next review I promise I am moving on to more Romantic terrain.

Rafael de Acha      ALL ABOUT THE ARTS