Bartók: Excerpts from 44 Duos; field recordings made 1906-1915
Claudine Bigelow and Donald Maurice (violas)
St Andrew’s on The Terrace
Wednesday, 16 May 2012, 12.15pm
Despite the atrocious weather in Wellington the audience was of a reasonable size at what was a lecture-recital rather than a concert – but none the worse for that.
Donald Maurice is well known locally as a violist, and as one of the performers and the promoter of Alfred Hill’s string quartets recordings.
Caroline Bigelow came here from the Brigham Young University School of Music on a Fulbright scholarship, to work with Donald Maurice. In a recent radio interview I heard, she paid tribute to Donald Maurice, whom she had met some years ago at an International Viola Congress.
Both performers gave quite lengthy spoken introductions to Bartók and the Duos, which were written for two violins. They are recording the duos for CD; the recording, like the concert, will feature the composer’s field recordings made from 1906 to 1915, upon which these 1931 compositions are based. It will be the first recording of them for two violas, and is being produced in collaboration with the Bartók Archive in Budapest.
It was a pity that Maurice and Bigelow (particularly the latter) did not use the microphone, since dropping the voice at the end of sentences and phrases made them inaudible at times – and I was seated near the front of the church.
Each of the 11 selections from the 44 was introduced, the translation read, and then in the relevant cases (which was most of them) the original field recording, transcribed from wax cylinders to CD, was played through the church’s speaker system, then Bartók’s duo based on that recording played.
This made for an interesting programme. The simple melodies used different tonalities from those we now consider standard major and minor. The first piece, ‘Midsummer Night Song’, was played with warm and rich tone, the beautiful harmonies created by Bartók and altered rhythms from the original folk song combining to create a colourful picture.
The ‘Cradle Song’ that followed was humorous, and the bi-tonality (B flat against E, Donald Maurice explained) employed by the composer appropriate to the modal original, making for a very effective piece.
In ‘Burlesque’, Bartók altered the timing from a simple one in the original to a dotted rhythm. ‘Fairy Tale’ was an example of more complex rhythms, but such as are common in Eastern European folk music.
‘Bride’s Farewell’ far from being a joyous song, sounded mournful, especially with the unison notes and intervals of a second that the composer chose. It was full of strong colours, compared with the earlier songs. Like ‘Burlesque’ and the Dance that followed it, this piece was from Ruthenia. Maurice explained that it was very difficult to get a translation of the Ruthenian language; it seems not to have survived. Nor has the name ‘Ruthenia’, in my atlas! [Ruthenia was the small eastern-most province of Czechoslovakia as it existed between the two world wars; it had a mixed population of Hungarians, Romanians, Ukrainians and a significant Jewish population; the region was predominantly Ukrainian. Till 1919 it was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire; it is now the Zakarpattia Oblast of Ukraine, and bordered by Slovakia, Romania and Hungary. The language referred to is most likely to be Ukrainian. L.T.]
The ‘Ruthenian Dance’ used a different minor scale from the one we know today, and employed an 8/8 rhythmic pattern of 3+2+3, very evident in the accompanying part; the melody line sounded typically folksy, however.
The song ‘Sorrow’, the performers found, differed in a recording by the composer himself from what he had written in his score, as well as from the folk original he recorded. It was a plaintive piece, with woeful humour in the last line about the wench from the inn: ‘How much of my money it has cost, all in vain!’ A man sang this in the original; most of the recordings were by girls or women.
Maurice explained that in the Hungarian language, emphasis tends to be on the first syllable of words (and I recall this from a Hungarian woman I once worked with), and this informs the musical rhythms.
‘Bagpipes’ was an original melody from the composer. Donald Maurice’s part was the drone and Bigelow’s the chanter with the melody. It was lively and jolly, and a very good evocation of the bagpipes. We were told that after this was written, Bartók went to Scotland, and showed much interest in the instrument.
‘Prelude and Canon’, purporting to be about two peonies blooming but ready to fade, was allegedly about two spinsters. However, the piece (and the original) speeded up towards the end, indicating perhaps that the fact that ‘No-one will pluck them’ was no bad thing! Here, Bartók was true to the original, but the colours of his harmonies were dark, even in the more animated section.
Another Bartók original was the ‘Pizzicato’. The entire piece was plucked. It was beautifully executed and a joyful little number. Donald Maurice explained that the short duos were written by the composer for students, but he said that the last ones in the set would require very advanced students to play them, that is, this one and the next, of those we heard.
Number 44, ‘Transylvanian Dance’ was last in the set and the last performed. It derived from the region where the composer grew up. Again, an unusual scale (to us) was employed. Maurice said that its exotic sound might have been because it derived from the music of migrants from India, long ago. It made for a complex and interesting piece in Bartók’s transcription.
The well-planned and played programme was fascinating, marred only by the lack of projection of the voices, particularly that of Caroline Bigelow.
The forthcoming recording will be of considerable interest.