Bartók’s Duos on folk music from two violists, Donald Maurice and Claudine Bigelow

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.


Interesting assortment of arrangements for viola ensembles from the New Zealand School of Music

Viva Viola – the next generation (from the New Zealand School of Music)

Viola: Annji Chong, Vince Hardaker, John Roxburgh, Alix Schultze, Alexa Thomson, Aiden Verity, Megan Ward

High Noon Quartet (in Mozart’s Flute Quartet in D, K 285): Michael McEwen – flute, Jun He – violin, Andrew Filmer – viola, Charles Davenport – cello

St Andrew’s on The Terrace

Wednesday 9 May, 12.15pm

Viola students at the New Zealand School of Music have formed this group which has given several concerts in Wellington as well as at the International Viola Conference in Sydney.

The programme listed seven players who took part but not identified in each of the trios, quartets, quintets and the final sextet; plus one, Andrew Filmer, who played in the Mozart. Their programme was, of necessity, rather odd-ball, for not a lot of music has been written for groups of violas. Thus it consisted, apart from the first piece, entirely of arrangements of music originally written for different instruments.

The first was played as written: one of Mozart’s flute quartets, which of course included only one viola. The result was probably the most generally popular piece on the programme, and it was indeed delightfully played. It was the only piece whose players were listed individually. Michael McEwen played a particularly stylish and confident flute and the three string players matched him in the feeling of gaiety that Mozart wrote into his D major quartet. The whole performance was charming, with just a few minor smudges in the last movement.

Then followed a short suite of early baroque pieces, by one Johann Groh, arranged by Australian composer Paul Groh (no note about the strange coincidence). The composer died at the beginning of the terrible Thirty Years War. Five violas performed the four small pieces that were quite characterful if unexciting; perhaps the harmonies employed in the arrangement made me suspect tuning flaws.

Dido’s Lament, ‘When I am laid in earth’ from Dido and Aeneas could have been more effective if played a bit slower to linger a little on the despair. But the piece was played very well.

An arrangement for four violas of a fugue from an organ work by Domenico Scarlatti was a thoroughly engaging piece, in which the fugue was cleverly visited by another unrelated theme that increased very significantly the complexity and pleasure derived therefrom. Bach himself might have been impressed by it, and by its playing.

A Viola Terzett (three violas) by an Israeli composer, Boaz Avni, was brought forward in the programme next: a well-honed performance of a perfectly competent piece that didn’t leave an especially deep impression.

Another minor piece arranged for viola trio by a much greater composer followed: one of Tchaikovsky’s piano pieces, Aveu passione (variously: passionné, passioné, passioni). It began on the lower strings but soon moved, rather effectively up the A string. I do not know the piano original and so cannot tell whether this might have been a good rendering of it.

The first viola led quite strongly an anonymous Galliard arranged for five violas by one Sancho Engano, but otherwise the piece seemed rather pedestrian.

And the concert finished with a curious musical skit, Bartosky, described as ‘tongue-in-cheek’,  by Julien Heichelbech, starting with the opening phrase of Bartok’s unfinished viola concerto into which were injected a couple of familiar tunes including the waltz from The Sleeping Beauty. A performance by less skilled players on You-Tube is furnished with a sudden scream in the middle which was funny and struck me as the main point of the music which in truth had little other purpose. I wonder why The Next Generation decided against it.

Though most of the music was not hugely entertaining, the playing by the various configurations of violas was in itself admirable and very agreeable (I have an especial affection for the sound of the viola), and confirmed the excellent musical level achieved by these (I assume) students.