Lutosławski/Bartók: Musique funèbre (ECM New Series 2169)

Musique funèbre

Witold Lutosławski
Béla Bartók
Musique funèbre

Hungarian Radio Children´s Choir
Stuttgarter Kammerorchester
Dennis Russell Davies conductor
Recorded May 2004 and February 2010, Liederhalle, Stuttgart
Engineer: Peter Laenger
Executive producer: Manfred Eicher

Conductor Dennis Russell Davies leads the Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra in a program of music by, and dedicated to, Béla Bartók. The disc opens in the latter vein with Witold Lutosławski’s Musique funèbre, composed between 1954 and 1958 for the 10th anniversary of Bartók’s death. The title, often erroneously translated as “Funeral music,” is better rendered as “Music of mourning,” and connotes homage to one of Lutosławski’s greatest inspirations, if not the greatest, for he never dedicated a work to another composer. Although the piece’s overarching development resembles Bartók’s Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta, the opening cellos closely prefigure the robust, overlapping memorial of Henryk Górecki’s Symphony No. 3, even if they do chart a vastly different geography, from collective to individual landing. That initial feeling of density and weight gives way to a dark airiness. Motives bend and sway—at moments pliant, at others sharply angled. Darting violins bring us closer to a sense of inner turmoil and bold reckoning. The Bartókian flavor is clear yet faged, and falls back where it began: in the solemn cellos. Ashes to ashes.

As Wolfgang Sandner observes in this album’s liner notes, for Bartók the music of Hungary’s peasants “was the source of a radical new musical system, not material for reverting to a nostalgic transfiguration of the original sounds.” In light of this, we might reckon his Romanian Folk Dances of 1917 not as an archival storehouse but, more like Estonian composer Veljo Tormis’s choral arrangements, as an experiment made fresh by extant impulses. While for me the reference recording by Midori and Robert McDonald (1992, Sony Classical) gets to the core of the music in ways I’ve not since heard, the Stuttgarters’ soaring performance of this 1937 arrangement for string orchestra by Arthur Willner articulates the orbits of its moons with surprising precision. A delicate piece of nevertheless sweeping proportions, it moves by a hand unseen. The solo violin stands out like a red rose among a field of black, its changes organic, even a touch mournful, in the present setting. As the mosaic evolves, it gives light to the translucent cells of its becoming. The flute-like strings in the enlivening finale give us reason to rejoice in the shadows.

So, too, does the Divertimento. Composed 1939 in dedication to Paul Sacher (who commissioned the work) and the Basler Kammerorchester, it achieves novel balance of spiritedness and restraint under Davies’s direction. Its unmistakable beginning lures with its insistent rhythm but would just as soon fragment into multiple galaxies of melodic thought. There is a smoothness of execution in the tutti passages and a paper-thin delicacy to the solo strings. While one might expect that energy to be sustained, it waxes and wanes in a most natural, thought-out-loud sort of way that lends especial insight into Bartók’s compositional process. The second movement proceeds slowly at first, but then, with the coming of dawn, stretches its gravity. The lower and higher strings forge an implicit harmony, an acknowledgment of the invisible forces connecting them both. The contrast between double basses and violins is one not of tone but of purpose: the lowers an unstable fundament, the uppers a firmament in turmoil. This chaos they share as if it were blood. The final movement returns the promise of that dance with wit. There are, of course, intensely lyrical and slow-moving parts, with the violin carving surface relief, but always returning with that whirlwind of fire.

In the wake of this dynamism, selections from Bartók’s 27 Two- and Three-Part Choruses (1935-41) come as something of a breather. They are not adaptations of folksongs, but were composed in such a style at the behest of Zoltán Kodály. With evocative titles like “Wandering,” “Bread-baking,” and “Jeering,” each is a vignette of imagined life. A snare drum pops its way through the choral textures, by turns martial and lyrical, adding colors of interest throughout. And while these pieces hardly hold a candle to his a capella choruses (the orchestral writing feels at points superfluous), they provide welcome contrast to the veils that precede it with gift of vision.

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