Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Bartók's Last: The Concerto For Viola

Hungarian composer Bela Bartók did not live to finish his Viola Concerto. He wrote this last work (along with the 3rd Piano Concerto)in the summer of 1945 while suffering from the terminal stages of leukemia. The concerto was a commission by William Primrose, who did so much to lift the viola from an "also ran" status. Around that time, Bartók wrote to Primrose that his concerto was "ready in draft, so that only the score has to be written." Just three weeks later the composer was dead of leukemia, September 26, 1945 age 64.

The unfinished concerto, was completed by violist, conductor, composer and Bartok pupil Tibor Serly. This is version most often performed and thus most familiar to listeners. Despite its familiarity, Serly's version is criticized for adding too much of his own style and embellishments to the score. Peter Bartók (Bela's son) and Paul Neubauer published a new completion of the concerto in 1995 that is a bit less of a stretch. Even though Bartók said the work was complete, it was in a very early stage of composition and would likely have been revised extensively. There is written evidence that the work would have had a 4th movement, a scherzo seems to be missing, and the finale "beginning Allegretto and developing the tempo to Allegro Molto" does not seem to have transpired completely. Some scholars, however, feel that the 3 movement scheme was deliberately planned by Bartók.

In any case, the piece is fascinating but frustrating in that one longs for what Bartók would have accomplished if it was completed. Unlike a number of Bartók's compositions, this is a gentle, almost romantic piece. Never allowing the viola to wallow, it brings out the clarinet-like quality of the instrument and shows that it can be as expressive through its range as a violin. Indeed the work has a valedictory feel about it, Bartók undoubtedly knew this was his last utterance.

The Kansas City Symphony and Violist Roberto Diaz performed the piece a few weeks ago, but unfortunately I missed it, being in Nicaragua and all. I was told by our mailman, who is an avid listener and talented musician, that it was wonderful. Diaz and the orchestra provided a convincing performance, full of virtuosity and lyricism and boldly showing that this intriguing, flawed work deserves its place in the repertoire.

Naxos has a great recording of the two versions(P.Bartók/Neubauer and Serly) in the same recording for comparison. Worth the small price.

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