Saturday, November 25, 2006

Bartok Records Reborn, Performances Reissued After a Long Absence

Posted by olvlzl

After posting the review of a recording of Bartok’s 27 Choruses several weeks ago someone e-mailed me to ask if I knew that some of the recordings made by Peter Bartok, his son, in the 1950s had been released on CD. His recording of the Cantata Profana was the first of Bela Bartok’s orchestral pieces I ever heard on an old, scratchy LP in the college library. I got that and the recording of Bartok’s opera, Bluebeard’s Castle.

The Cantata Profana performance by Richard Lewis and Marko Rothmuller with the New Symphony Orchestra and Chorus conducted by Walter Susskind is sung in the English translation made by Robert Shaw. It’s interesting how much more available this makes the music to an English speaker. When there are words, meaning matters as much as sound. Not more than the sound, as much as the sound.

The performance is very good and the Mono recording is excellent. Peter Bartok was a recording engineer of genius, as you might have heard on his recordings issued by Folkway Records. Here, recording the music of his father, there is just a certain something that is missing from many of the more modern stereo recordings, both analog and digital. He clearly has a mastery of things too subtle and complicated to explain, too much a matter of having an excellent and experienced ear that notices the smallest things. And it should never be forgotten that his earliest training in music was under his father. His lessons are the origin of Bela Bartok’s famous Mikrokosmos.

The choral pieces included on the disc, also sung in English, are very good though the old fashioned articulation of the text (rolled r’s for example) takes a few seconds to get used to. Eight of the 27 Choruses are on the disc, the reason I got the e-mail. The example of the various animals in “Bread Baking” illustrates that Bartok’s use of tone painting helps where the language limits understanding.

The recording of the Viola Concerto with William Primrose, conducted by Tibor Serly , is proof of why Primrose was one of the greatest Viola players in history. It is a wonderful performance. Tibor Serly was the composer who Bartok left the job of completing the concerto which was left very much unfinished at his death. A newer version made by Peter Bartok has k been issued with the Serly completion on Naxos, but I haven’t heard that yet and can’t compare.

Bluebeard’s Castle is sung by Judith Hellwig and Endre Koreh as Judith and Bluebeard. Walter Susskind and the New Symphony again provide the orchestra. I wish they had recorded it in English as well, though there may not be a good English text available. Reading the CD booklet’s translation before listening is a good idea and here, for once, reading the explaination by Peter Bartok will add greatly to your appreciation of the otherwise puzzling opera. You do get the seldom included spoken introduction by the “bard” spoken by Erno Lorsy which gives some insight into the way the opera was intended to be performed. Peter Bartok’s explanation of it as an exploration of interior personality through a version of the old folk story makes it clear in a way that listening to a number of performances and reading several authors on it hadn’t to me.

The opera consists of Judith, the latest of the unfortunate brides of Bluebeard, opening a series of seven doors, the last one in which the previous brides are kept in a sort of living death. With great costumes. I won’t give too much away but several of the most glorious minutes in classical music happen when Judith opens the fifth door onto Bluebeard’s vast estate. The dank and gloom in our self-centered lives is fully, and here only temporarily, overcome by absorption in the wider world of nature. As in the Cantata Profana and throughout the rest of his music, Bela Bartok’s depiction of the natural world is as great and clear as any painter’s.

I know this music isn’t to every bodies taste and the vintage performance might not be what people are used to, but for people who find this music meaningful these recordings are worth the trouble of getting. They come closer to definitive recordings of these pieces than we are likely to have again. Their pedigree is undeniable.

Very helpfully, the Bartok Records website has a section about corrected errors in published editions of some of Bela Bartok's pieces. I've used it several times already.