Notes and Editorial Reviews
Violin Sonata in e.
Sonatina. Hungarian Folk Songs.
An Evening in the Village.
Slovak Folk Songs.
Romanian Folk Dances
Antal Zalai (vn); József Balog (pn)
BRILLIANT 9236 (70:31)
The cover of Brilliant’s first volume of Béla Bartók’s complete music for violin and piano performed by violinist Antal Zalai and
pianist József Balog depicts the two musicians seated at a chessboard, pondering a position that, even from the perspective from which the reader must view it, seems exceedingly strange, all of which might discourage a chess player from opening the jewel case. (How many chessboards appear, inadvertently or not, rotated a quarter-turn in advertisements and display windows? But this seems even worse.) Whether that chess player would be justified in so summary a dismissal serves, of course, as the subject of this review.
The composer’s early works and transcriptions for the combination of instruments serves as the subject of the compilation itself. In fact, the transcribers based most of their work, according to Malcolm MacDonald’s highly informative notes, on works Bartók wrote between 1902 and 1915, with three sets (those made by Tivadar Országh and Bartók, by Joseph Szigeti and Bartók, and by Aladár Mózi) derived from Bartók’s 1908–09 set,
. The program opens with the romantic, even quasi-Brahmsian, early Sonata in E Minor, Sz 20. A work nearly a half-hour in length and constituting nearly half the program, it occupies a galaxy light-millennia distant from the composer’s thorny, canonical First Violin Sonata. Hints of Brahms occur not only in the two instruments’ interaction in the first movement but also in that movement’s occasional dramatically jagged melodic oratory, although overall it may strike some listeners that Bartók derived more manner than matter from his models (Richard Strauss’s likeness also appears in the clouds near the end of the movement): Bartók’s melodies arguably contain a somewhat higher proportion of steps to skips than does Brahms’s. And there’s perhaps added seriousness, too, in the movement’s central contrapuntal discussion. Zalai and Balog play with sumptuous warmth in this early work, a description that might damn a performance of a later work. The second movement, the longest of the three, offers Zalai an opportunity to indulge ethnic sensibilities, and both musicians push up the thermostat in the intensely expressive central section. A hint of paprika flavors the duo’s performance of the even more Hungarian last movement (exhibiting perhaps the most obvious ethnicity in its thematic sections). If it’s not Bartók as we’ve come to know him from his later works, it’s still someone worth knowing.
, that follows purports to be the composer’s first work for violin and piano, written during student days for the then Adila d’Aranyi. It sounds heartfelt, although with a few unexpected chromatic melodic turns, in Zalai’s and Balog’s reading. Violinist André Gertler transcribed Bartók’s Sonatina, based on Transylvanian folk tunes (“Bagpipers,” “Bear Dance,” and Finale) for violin and piano, and the piece, which lasts only about five minutes, offers a heady mix in this reading of the violinistic and the melodic. Zalai and Balog interrupt the three sets of transcriptions of Hungarian and Slovak folk tunes with the brief movement
An Evening in the Village
, which sounds in this performance as though it might have been drawn from the other sets (although, according to the notes, it’s been drawn from the composer’s
10 Easy Pieces
for piano). If anything, the Szigeti transcriptions display more vivid ethnic color and inflection than do Orzágh’s, partly due, perhaps, to the Slovak character of the pieces themselves, with their often repeated motives. Zalai and Balog bring the program to a conclusion with a clean and clear reading of the familiar
Suzanne Stanzeleit and Gusztávo Fenyö included the Sonata in E Minor, the Andante, and the Slovak Folk Songs in the third volume of her collection of the composer’s music for violin and piano on ASV 982,
20:5; Baltic’s four-CD collection of Bartók’s complete violin works, recorded by André Gertler, included the Sonatine (which Gertler transcribed), as well as the Hungarian Folk Songs and the Sonata in E Minor (Baltic 0001, also
20:5). Stanzeleit sounds more insinuating in the opening of the E-Minor Sonata and seems to grow more urgent, compared to Zalai; but Zalai gesticulates more flamboyantly expressive, while Gertler’s tone seems more strident and his manner, less pliant. Zalai plays the Andante with greater stylishness than does Stazeleit, adapting to its salon-like perfume and elegance. (Could this be a possible description of a work by Bartók?) In the Sonatina, Gertler’s reading may possess a sort of proprietary authority, but he’s earned his preeminence in this work with a performance almost startlingly folklike. In the Slovak Folk Songs, Zalai communicates more of the zest of childhood, though Stanzeleit makes effective use of dynamic contrasts. Finally, Zalai plays the Hungarian Folk Songs with greater suavity than does Gertler, but Gertler’s reading has greater verve. Listeners with the three alternatives available will have to match the merits of the individual performances to their preferences, but nobody should go wrong in choosing Gertler’s collection, should it be available to them. In any case, Brilliant’s clear recorded sound transmits the purity and elegance of Zalai’s sound at what seems a slightly greater distance than Balog’s. Recommended.
FANFARE: Robert Maxham
Works on This Recording
For Children, Sz 42: Excerpt(s) by Béla Bartók
Antal Szalai (Violin),
Joszef Balogh (Piano)
Period: 20th Century
Written: 1909/1945; Budapest, Hungary
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