Bartók: 44 Duos for Two Violins (ECM New Series 1729)



Béla Bartók
44 Duos for Two Violins

András Keller violin
János Pilz violin
Recorded October 1999 at Propstei St. Gerold, Austria
Engineer: Peter Laenger
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Béla Bartók originally wrote his 44 Duos for Two Violins in the early 1930s at the behest of Erich Doflein, a Freiburg music instructor looking for a set of pieces both didactic and distinctly modern. Yet it is clear that the composer never intended at least some of these exercises to remain off the stage. András Keller and János Pilz of the widely celebrated Keller Quartett show us that neither were they meant to remain on the page, for in these benchmark performances they have enlivened the music with something it inherently possesses: a need to dance. That being said, and with the wealth of Eastern European sources bleeding through at nearly every stroke, folk music is not merely the means to Bartók’s message. A desire to look beyond this easy association is perhaps what lies behind the musicians’ decision to play the pieces out of sequence (Bartók had originally arranged them in order of increasing difficulty). In doing so, they focus our attention on the musicality of what is at hand.

From the verdant strains of “Erdély Tánc” (Transylvanian Song) one will hear how this music has influenced composers as diverse as Michael Galasso, Henryk Górecki, and Stephen Hartke, to name but a few. This song is like a tree of its own, every draw of the bow a newly articulated vein, and all that follows a book of its pressed leaves. Much of the work is pensive and exploratory, at once within and without. Some movements are all the more engaging for their brevity, like the uplifting and, dare I say, groovy “Párnás Tánc” (Cushion Dance), not to mention the trembling beauties of “Ujévköszöntö II” (New Year’s Greeting II), “Tót Nóta II” (Slovak Song II), and the “Menuetto.” The latter’s full double stops and swaying leads speak to the robustness of heart so characteristic of Bartók. From the sinewy leaps and bounds of “Szunyogtánc” (Mosquito Dance) to the meditations of “Mese” (Fairy Tale), he employs subtle dissonances that transmogrify seemingly straightforward gestures into more complex acts of implication. Others, like “Lakodalmas” (Wedding Song), cast simple shafts of light through a cracked attic wall, illuminating that same book of leaves into which every vignette is placed. “Szól A Duda” (Bagpipes) is one of the most stunning in the collection, its grammar so distinct that it is played twice in this recording. Keller and Pilz also underscore the percussive aspects of “Pizzicato” and “Arab Dal” (Arabian Song), the latter another standout performance in an already vivacious program. They add the most depth, however, to the more ponderous moments therein. Notable examples of this can be found in “Oláh Nóta” (Romanian Song) and “Bánkódás” (Sorrow).

While the liner notes give us no explanation regarding the program’s complementary encores, one can trace them back to the same cache of folk influences. One might also have added, if anything, the comparable duo sonatas of Prokofiev or, for that matter, Górecki, but instead we find two kindred spirits whose interest in deepening the essence of the form was as fleeting as the intensity with which they engaged it. György Ligeti’s Ballad and Dance after a Romanian folk song are two links in an otherwise obscured chain. The wavering cries of the first and the awakening of the second show us two sides of the same celestial body and wrap us in a cloak of night so intimate that the duo version of Ligatura – Message to Frances-Marie op. 31b by György Kurtág that closes reads like an orchestra whose voice strains to be heard over vast distances yet whose body has already rotted by the time that voice reaches us.

The rich sonority of these instruments and the music flowing through them moves like a blade across greased leather, and under the watchful ear of engineer Peter Laenger the recording inhabits a fine balance between capture and deference. The brilliance of this music is its ability to emote in lieu of euphemistic storytelling, getting to what Edward Gordon Craig would call “the spirit of the thing,” curling its fingers around something essential the more illusory those fingers become.

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