Conversations with Bartók – Violin in hand August 2023

Posted on August 7th, 2023 by

Conversations with Bartók – August 2023

It’s not possible to be in New York City, practising and writing about Bartok, and NOT play the great sonata he wrote here. So here is the Melodia, at the desk this morning, with the view from the desk, as the rain stopped…
With thanks to Monika Machon and Richard Bram

New York – August 2023


Bartok with Zoltan Szekely

Over recent days, I found that Bartók found his way back to my practice desk. Every musician knows that there is an interesting balance between the material that finds its way back into the workroom and any given time: between the practical (preparation, practice, planning), and the conceptual (playful, pointless, speculative). For me, the summer is a time for recalibration in the practice room, a chance to work in different spaces, to allow fantasy and exploration to regain the upper hand over training and polishing. Two weeks ago I had no plan to do a ‘Bartok Project’ but now I find that it, or perhaps he, is moving me towards it, whatever it will be. Perhaps this happened because I knew that I was en route to New York City, where he died, but I don’t think that is it

I think that I can comfortable say, that for violinists, perhaps more for any other group of musicians, BelalBartok is central, a musical and lodestar along with Bach and Beethoven. There are many reasons for this, but the most obvious thing is the particular tranche of repertoire that he left us. This will be different for every player, and naturally enough, directly linked to the works that we have performed and studied. So I can illustrate the coherence of his ‘violin-output’ by the pieces that have been and are, in my fingers since my teens. These are, in no particular order:

Concertos 1 & 2, Sonatas with Piano 1 & 2,  Solo Sonata, 6 String Quartets, Divertimento for Strings, Roumanian Folk Dances, Contrasts.

This is a relatively compact list, but stretches across all five decades in which he produced mature work. And, which ever way you slice his output, there’s an extraordinary coherence, mirroring the renowned coherence of his scores (and playing). From my point of view, this coherence is matched by an unsurpassed commitment to influence, be it the influence of his collaborators (and never was there a greater collaborating composer), or the influence of the composers he admired, and to whom his output offers homage.

Here’s an example of my youthful enthusiasm for Bartok, the astonishing ‘Divertimento’ for Strings, composed hard on the heels of the 2nd Violin Concerto, and filled with a not-unrelated verve, that reminds me of the line of Thomas Traherne: ‘I felt a vigour in my strength, that was all spirit.’

For this player, collaboration and its spirit of connection, is everything, so one of the ways that I find my way into Bartok’s workshop, is the sounding out, the assaying of his collaborations, and looking for space, for myself, in the corner of the conversations. As I violinist, I think about the list of pieces that are in my personal violin-library, and the list of collaborators is standing with me, again, in no particular order: d’Aranyi, Geyer, Waldebauer, Menuhin, Fachiri, Vegh, Szekely …and Benny Goodman!

Jelly d’Aranyi, Bartok, and Adila Fachiri in 1923

The pieces that drifted into my hands for this summer date from 1907 to 1943 – they are the two concertos and the solo sonata. But I began my work with an in-depth return to the 2nd Violin Concerto, composed 1937-8, and premiered in Amsterdam in 1939. For some reason, my violin-brain decided that it was time to go back to this piece in detail, and do the technical work, at the level I now demand, and, perhaps put right some solecisms of my youth. So I took the violin part from the shelf,  and set to work. I studied this piece with the great Armenian violinist Manoug Parikian when I was 18, and it is fascinating to work on the part he marked up for me – and weave my approach now around it. I think that every musician recognises such an ongoing conversation with a teacher, with all its debates and insights as alive as ever- so both voices remain on the page,  both as entranced with this miraculous piece, and as ever, with a mass of questions for the composer.

But I realised that there was another conversation in my mind, at the same time, which has been percolating through my mind for years, and has implications for violin playing, and the conversations that I have been having over the past few years with composers as to what a concerto could be.  That conversation is with Richard Strauss.

So lets begin at the basics: the first thing to say, is that in some ways, Bartok’s 2nd concerto is very traditional, in others, revolutionary (although less radical than he had planned it to be). The traditional aspect of the concerto, is in the relationship with the orchestra. From a simplistic point of view this can be expressed in the relationship between violin-dominant bars and orchestra. In the first movement this is 310 to 73, the second 112 to 15, and the last 420 to 200. On top of this, there are comparatively few bars where the violin takes a secondary role in the argument. This results in a (yes I am going to say it) relatively simple to-and-fro relationship, except with some of the concertante interweaving with woodwind soloists, most especially, with the piccolo in the ‘Allegro Scherzando’ variation of the second movement. In many ways, this almost classical polarisation accounts for the success of the piece as a, yes, crowd-pleasing concerto, enabling the composer to experiment in other ways (the use of ¼ tones, and quasi-12-tone lyrical material). But it is worth saying, that it is a long way from the orchestral invention of the Berg Concerto, premiered just threes earlier: but both pieces are masterpieces.

Having said all of that, this is one of the most innovative and successful concerti in the repertoire, and one of the reasons for the structural features above, is something which, to a degree, Bartok was prevented from doing with the concerto, but which underlies every element of it: variation form. His original plan was the piece to pay without a break – with the central variations flowering in the way that they do, for instance in the great Schubert Piano-Violing C Major Fantasie.

I will come back to this varying theme…

But meanwhile, lets talk about Bartok, the Musical Sponge. I can’t escape the sensation, that this concerto, at least violinistically, returned Bartok to his youthful obsession with the orchestral works of Richard Strauss. Plenty of ink has been spilt on the relationship between Strauss’s Ein Heldenleben (of which the young composer made and performed, a solo piano transcription in 1903) and his Kossuth. Interestingly, when I posted a few lines from the solo violin part on Facebook a few days ago, it immediately elicited this response from composer Alistair Hinton:

‘Is it just me or do the opening measures appear to have something of a whiff of Richard Strauss about them?..’

To be honest, I was surprised, as the passage I had posted did not strike me as that, but Alistair hit the nail on the head. Composers Geoffrey Alvarez and Paul Pellay immediately added their authoritative and perceptive voices clarifying the impact of Strauss at the turn of the 1900s.

However, I then posted an extract from the last movement of the concerto and started to explain my violinocentric standpoint.

Bartok – Violin Concerto 2 . Last movement Bar 502 (PSS working part)

For this extract is one of the many in the concerto which ‘owns up’ to the (here goes) most important  late 19th century redefinition of the relationship between solo string instrument and orchestra (after ‘Harold in Italy’), Strauss’s ‘Ein Heldenleben’. The great pre WWII works for violin and ensemble, of which this is one, with ‘Histoire du Soldat’, the Berg Concerto, to name two more, could not have happened without the great recalibration of what a soloist might do that Strauss offered.

To make the point as crudely as I can, look at these bars from the solo violin part of Strauss’ autobiographical monster. Two gestures around figure 27.

It should be immediately obvious that something has stuck here. Whilst I do acknowledge that this gesture is a ‘sui generis’ one, versions of which can be found in any number of forgettable mid-19th century virtuoso violin concertos, there is no denying that the similarity between Bartok’s last-movements cadenza, and Strauss’s epic characterisation, is unmistakable!

I would like to suggest that, the idea of the conductor who was going to premiere Bartok’s new piece, Willem Mengelberg, and to he dedicated it, triggered something from his youth, and the result was a plethora of technical gambits, dramatic gestures and expressive motifs in the solo violin part, which were a homage, very deliberately to Ein Heldenleben … which Strauss had DEDICATED to Mengelberg in 1898! At the time, he told the press:

“I have finally discovered an orchestra able to play any all passage, so that I am no longer embarrassed when writing difficulties.”

The performance of Bartok’s concerto in 1939 would have come up to Strauss’s standards. It remains one of the greatest premieres every

The founder of the Concertgebouw Orkester, Willem Mengelberg

recorded. As I noted on Facebook – ‘Here’s the jaw-dropping premiere, with the greatest of Bartók’s collaborators, Zoltán Székely and William Mengelberg. Violinists and composers, this is what collaboration sounds like – the bar set so high that I can barely see it!’ LINK

Bartok achieved something very rare amongst non-string-playing composers. He succeeded in being recognised as one of the greatest composers, for our instruments, particularly for the violin. Stravinsky did not achieve this, and curiously, event though he was a great player of the violin and viola, neither did Paul Hindemith. But Bartok established a new ‘niveau’ for the string players and performance, set new technical and expressive standards an archetypes. I feel that by the 1920s, he thought and composed, as if he was a violinist. This might help explain the trajectory from the 2nd Violin concerto to his last great work for the instrument, the Solo Sonata. I think that I am comfortable with saying, that it might also explain the peculiar solo-fixation, as indicated baldly by the solo/tutti proportions indicated above, and draws another line to Strauss’s great tone poem.

I will come back to the deliberate or accidental Heldenleben-isch violinisms soon. But I think I need to clarity why I think that the piece proved so important for the concertante  medium’s survival in the 20th century.  This also makes the success of Bartok’s great concerto a litte easier to understand.

During the Covid-19 lockdowns, this became a topic of heated, and excited conversation for me with the composer Nigel Clarke. We were talking, and arguing, about what form a concerto could take, even should take, in the 21st century. Nigel had already written two concertante works for me, which had looked at the question in two disparate ways: one is for violin and 13 strings (commissioned for me to play with I Solisti di Zagreb) and the other for violin and large symphonic wind orchestra. Both eschewed ‘traditional’ orchestration, or multi-movement structures. However it became increasingly clear to Clarke, during our conversations, that he no longer wanted to sidestep the challenge of the violin/symphony orchestra combination, and the multi-act structure. But that left the question of ‘what is a soloist doing?’ Herein lies a morass of aesthetic and ethical questions and challenges, about the message, perhaps even the societal structures, the hierarchy of the concerto, which cannot be ducked in our age.

To be clear: I am not alone, in finding the notion of the ‘soloist-as-hero’ somewhat queasy today. It evokes notions of leadership, hierarchies, and, all too often frankly, martial prowess, which don’t sit well, with many people. 150 years ago, the presence of the brilliant uniforms and nodding plumes of a military parade inspired confidence and excitement, and were paralleled in much of the music written at the time. Today, whilst society and governments has signally failed to end the reliance on what Clausewitz referred to laconically as ‘the extension of policy by other means’, the idea of this being celebrated in music, and for that matter the soloist, like one of Tolstoy’s soldiers in War and Peace turning the tide of battle with a waved standard, both speak to a failure of society, rather than something which should be celebrated. So, with no disrespect at all to their astonishing musical qualities, we have to face the fact that many of the ‘great’ violin concerti of the 1800s come from this implicitly militaristic, heroic, source: the Brahms, Bruch, Tchaikovsky are full of it, and, lets be honest, the greatest of all violin concerti, the Beethoven  (the four drum-beats and march-tempo of the first movement make this explicit) is a ‘concerto militaire’.

This question bugged Nigel and I: he was determined to write a work for violin and full orchestra (as it turned out, we would record it with the tremendous Austrian Radio Orchestra in Vienna), but we agreed that the romantic model, did not seem to work. In the end, it was a combination of Richard Strauss and Hector Berlioz who would offer us/him an answer. But let’s back up a little.

So what is, what can be the relationship between soloist and ensemble? In the early days of the concerto, and concerto grosso, the ‘concertante’ group or soloist was not generally in ‘competition’ with their surrounding peers, and it is clear that it was expected that they should be quieter.  There is little gained, for instance, in Vivaldi concertos, by the soloist thrashing away, despite what a thousand performance of The Four Seasons might attempt to tell you! This model certainly held for the string concerti of Haydn, and Mozart, although there were moments when a certain ‘mock-heroicism’ crept in – Bach does it with the triple-stopped intervention of the violin soloist in the first movement of Brandenburg 4th Concerto, but (to me) the sequence of questionable parallel 6ths into which this attempt collapses indicates a certain type of failure. He, and I feel that it is a he, is being mocked, just as much as the leader in the slow movement of Mozart’s A Musical Joke.  The soloist’s hubris is quickly met with the nemesis of the their own incompetence.

The Cadenza from Mozart’s Ein musikalischer Spaß, K.522 . First Edition Offenbach a/M: J. André, n.d.[1797].

But there’s something there: the idea of the vulnerable, the flawed soloist, seemed to have attracted a number of composers since the 1780s. Perhaps the most important, and in the long run, most creatively useful ‘flaw’, was the uncoupling of the solo and orchestral material and obligation, to each other, and to the ‘integrity’ of their various mutual relationships. The third section of Strauss’s enormous tone-poem cum symphony is entitled ‘The Hero’s Companion’. Strauss was open about the fact that the solo violin which dominates this section is a musical portrait, of his wife, Pauline de Ahna. He said “She is very complex, somewhat perverse, somewhat coquettish, never the same, changing from minute to minute.” I studied this solo in enormous detail in my mid-teens, for a performance that never materialised, but every note of it remains seared into my violin playing. The extraordinary thing about this ‘mini-concerto’, which results, no doubt, from the characterisation which the composer offered above, is that the orchestral mass and the soloist exist in the same space, but don’t really correspond, communicate directly with each other; rather they seems to find a number of ways to offset, ignore, contradict, forget and even remain indifferent to each other. The strength, or weakness of the soloist, is that they don’t ‘take the fight’ or contribute to the orchestral argument but remain  aloof from it and often, the power of their interaction is its futility, which is not a million miles from the abject failure of Mozart’s cadenza-playing leader shown here. But, this was clearly something which Strauss learnt from Berlioz. His Harold in Italy, for all that it is inspired by a Byronic hero denies the soloist-as-Harold any heroic role, and eschews the thematic and dramatic integration which reached an unconfinable high-watermark with Brahms Violin Concerto. After that, there was really nowhere to go. But Mozart, Berlioz and Strauss, offered Bartok the model of an uncoupled solo line, and this was something which had found its way into his approach to the violin from the early 1920s.

I will be coming back to the technical links between Strauss and Bartoks approaches/approach(?) to the violin later.

The extraordinary solo opening of the second movement of Bartok’s 1922 Ist Violin Sonata

Which brings me to one of the things which ties together much of Bartok’s violin writing, from sonatas to concertos, to chamber music. This is not something in which he is unique, but helps this player (yes, I admit that this is a very personal view), find my way through his writing. I can bet express it thus: at any given time, Bartok will be looking for the moment that the violin can sing by itself (not necessarily alone, which is different), but untethered. At those lyrical moments, he will impose the greatest compositional rigour on the material and the player, who must thus ‘dance in chains’ (to misappropriate Nietzsche). The extraordinary song of ‘Melodia’ (see above), whilst the only complete work for violin alone, was the culmination of a search which had began, with the almost forgotten opening of the Ist Violin Concerto back in 1907. This was the very first piece of music which I studied (illicitly as it happens), after hearing my teacher, the great Ralph Holmes perform it. At the time, it never crossed my mind that this was not the ‘mature’ Bartok style, nor that the piece had lain unperformed until the late 1950s. It seemed extraordinarily radical to me at the time, and was my entry piece into the music of the 20th century. I am profoundly grateful for this today!

The solo opening of Bartok’s 1st Violin Concerto. My teenage copy – never taken anywhere near a violin lesson!

I need to explain what I mean by Bartok’s violin ‘alone’. But, before I do, I want to circle back to the idea of the ‘non-integrated’ approach to writing, to which I hinted earlier. Tchaikovsky had given a hint of it in his violin concerto – this begins with a short orchestral prelude, whose material, the soloist completely ignores-never develops or explores. This would be anathema, WAS unacceptable to Brahms, and (I suspect) one of the things that was hateful to Hanslick! But a number of composers of the following generations realised that it offered a way forward for musical forms which attempted to reconcile unlike instruments, such as the piano/violin sonata. Why even try to make two completely unrelated instruments work on the same material, where they can play different material, just in the same space? It’s not difficult to see that such an approach lends itself to the complete untethering of instruments altogether. A great example of this, and one which might see surprising in this context, is Respighi’s astonishing piano violin sonata. And if you listen to the Bartok’s 2nd Sonata (live here with Aaron Shorr), you will hear the technique taken to the limit.

The violin material is the violin’s, the piano, the piano’s. The impact of this extraordinary piece relies very much on the fact that neither player is trying to negotiate material which is unidiomatic for their particular instrument; characterisation can be, and is pushed harder because piano and violin are going to the edge of what they each can do. And that is an integrity of approach, which in the long run, proved to be as fruitful as what I can only see as the idealising-classical approach, say of Johannes Brahms. There are, without doubt, moments in his chamber music, his great chamber music (don’t get me wrong, I am a fan!), where his back-and-forth of sharing material results in problems, not only to do with instrumental characterisation, but weight. After all a violin has 4 strings, a piano 230-236 or so.

The reason that I am going on about this, and why it is important for Bartok and the 20th century concerto, is that the ‘uncoupled’, character-driven approach to materials, enabled Bartok and others, to play, to experiment with a more line-driven approach to solo writing for the (predominantly) monodic violin. Without getting too analytical, this also opened up possibilities for the use of what Tippett would call horizontal harmony. In Bartok’s case, as I have already hinted, it resulted in a greater confluence between writing for violin and orchestra, violin and piano, and violin alone.

But now, a digression, or maybe not …

It’s not possible for me to write about Bartok’s works for violin between 1939 and 1943, and not wite about Jazz, or rather, Benny Goodman and Bartok. It was the violinist Joseph Szigeti who suggested that Bartok write a piece for him to play with the peerless Benny Goodman. This, originally two-movements piece (billed as Rhapsody), was premiered on January 9th 1939, with the pianist Endre Petri. Then Bartok added a middle movement ‘Relaxation’, and the renamed ‘Contrasts’ was first heard at Carnegie Hall, with the composer at the piano on the 20th April 1940. That, and the recording the trio made together are as much part of musical myth as the premiere of Beethoven’s Eroica  or The Rite of Spring. The question that I had not asked myself, until today, was what impact did the popular music, and Goodman’s playing have on Bartok’s composition. Because, lets be honest, there’s no sign of the Goodman style in Bartok’s trio.

But over the past 24 hours, I have been practising the last movement of the solo sonata – particularly the secondary material – for now you

Bartok Solo Sonata, Finale. Bars 10-126

will have to make do with the score – my working copy, I am afraid.

So, this movement  was a topic of conversation with my wife, as we walked up Broadway the three and half miles from Liberty Street to Grand Central Station (for lunch with Garrison Keillor at the Oyster Bar). A short walk in the city is a great chance to talk, and Malene had been thinking about the Bartok, as she had not been able to escape from it for the past couple of days.

Now, whilst she is not a musician, I take what she says very seriously, and her ear is extraordinary, and her insights into musical structure and materials belie the fact that she does not read music, and has no ability to pitch a note whatsoever – a trait gifted to her by her Danish family. But, years ago, after watching a brilliant performance of Bernstin’s 1953 masterpiece,  Wonderful Town, with Donna Murphy in the Rosalind Russell lead, she asked me whether anyone had noticed that the whole piece seemed to be based on Beethoven, most particularly the Grosse Fuge.  You don’t believe me? Go and listen to ‘The Wreck’ singing ‘But I could throw that football … like nothing you had ever seen…’.

Bartok (at the piano) recording  ‘Contrasts’ with Szigeti and Benny Goodman in New York 23rd May 1940

So it turned out that , while I practised, and practised, Bartok, Malene had been thinking about Tim Roth, or, more to the point, Tim Roth singing, beautifully, in Woody Allen’s glorious Everyone Says I Love You (1996). The song  that Roth sings  was written in 1928 by a very English writing duo, Jimmy Campbell and Reg Connelly, writing as ‘Irving King’:

‘I could show the world how to smile /I could be glad all of the while/ I could change the grey skies to blue /If I had you /I could leave the old days behind/ Leave all my pals, I’d never mind /I could start my life all anew/ If I had you’.

This was first recorded in the UK, by Al Bowlly in 1929, and instantly popularised in the USA by Rudy Vallee and His Connecticut Yankees  By 1940, it was established as a standard, and Benny Goodman recorded it for the first time the following year.

I have wondered what Goodman was doing this famous press photo with his Hungarian collaborators His classical playing was always very correct, and perhaps, a little straight laced. I like to think, that judging by Bartok’s expression, and Goodman’s supremely relaxed posture, that he was noodling around, and Bartok was listening, very carefully. Which brings me back to Malene. She said

‘Was Bartok listening to Irving King? To If I had you?’

We talked about what Bartok might have heard in New York, what Goodman might have played for him, what he would have heard in the streets between his apartment on 57th Street and Columbia University, where he had a teaching position. And the question naturally emerged: what of New York, found its way into this piece. Is the clue to this relaxed 3/4 6/8 material a song written by two Englishmen (one of whom was born in Buckhurst Hill – just a few minutes from my parents house). The lyrical material later in Bartok’s finale could even be said to point to If I had you even more.

There’s no proof to be sought here, no right, no wrong. Just a hunch. Listen to Benny Goodman in 1941 ( he played this tune to the end his career four decades later…). I certainly find, that it’s helping me. Benny Goodman Sextet, recorded on Octber 28, 1941 in New York.?Clarinet : Benny Goodman, Trombone : Lou McGarity, Piano : Mel Powell, Guitar : Tom Morgan, Bass : Sid Weiss, Drums : Ralph Collier. Watch out for Lou McGarity sneaking in Gershwin’s Summertime as a momentary countermelody!

The very least possibility is useful. I bridle against the suggestion that Bartok should be understood as exclusively Hungarian. It was noted in the chat around one of my online posts that someone did not really like the (unbelievably brilliant) Szekely recordings of the 2nd Concerto because they missed the ‘Magyar Savagery’. Whilst I appreciate the point, I also think (sorry) that they are wrong, and more than a little patronising, not unlike expecting all Elgar to sound like Pomp & Circumstance .  What Malene has offered me, is a useful window, into how a relaxed, transatlantic, jazz style might have found its way into Bartok’s great work for solo violin, and how that might bring lightness, a little more grace to how I play it.

For there was a complaint attached to Malene’s observation – about my playing of Bartok:

‘All a little screechy, a little too pointy’.

There, I think that Benny Goodman, Campbell and Connelly can certainly help.

Over the past few days, I have been observing a number of contrapuntal conversations, on social media, about the duty of the performer to the score and the composer. These have dovetailed into some more remarks (some responding to my ideas) about the notion of ‘authority’ in performance. The combination of these two offset an issue that cannot be avoided with regard to the Solo Sonata. It is an issue that I have

A reason to get excited…Bartok’s notation, in 2/3 tones, on the Menuhin’s copy of the Solo Sonata.

often found myself dancing around, and one which I am often hesitant to write about, except with regard to its positive side. That of course, is the impact of the young Yehudi Menuhin on the piece. Here’s a glimpse of the manscript of the sonata, with Menuhin’s annotations. But let’s back up a little.

let’s go back to the correspondent on Facebook responded to my recommendation of the world premiere of the Second Concerto, noting that it missed ‘Magyar Savagery’, that it was too clean. There’s a really interesting point here. Think about the playing of the violinists around Bartok up until his departure to the USA in 1939 (they were nearly all Hubay students) : Adila Fachiri, Szekely, Jelly d’Aranyi, Sandor Vegh, Imre Waldbauer, Joseph Szigeti, Steffi Geyer, or even the wildest of the lot Emil Telmanyi. The most cursory listen to the wildest of any of their recordings (and the same could be said of Bartok’s piano playing) was that they are distinguished by extraordinary elegance, an almost ethical fidelity to the score, and the most precisely graduated control of timbre and colour. Wildness, savagery: not so much. Here’s Telmanyi, playing Hubay’s signature piece, Hejre Kati. 

Poise, elegance, and yes impassioned rhapsody – when playing this Liszt-inspired, yes ‘Magyar’ music. But I think that at the very least, we should acknowledge that the players that Bartok was imagining, sound like this.

But lets add to this, some of the questions that have been buzzing around the internet in the last week. Because I will admit, that any listener is fully entitled to expect certain things from we performers, which might mean … that there are, and should be, more than one response to a score, more than one way of doing things, more than one reading. Because I noticed two sets of interchanges, which dovetailed into each other: one was responding to a new recording of the Mozart Piano Quartets, by a young pick-up group, the other, a perfectly interesting questions about a cadential trill in a violin concerto by the same composer. The question revealed that the violinist was worried about whether their instinct to do the trill ‘on the note’, as opposed to the ‘upper note’ approach, which they noted, everyone seemed to do. It was good to see a number of colleagues kindly told the player to follow their heart, whilst indicating their preferences. This is the way that musicians like to do it, to help and reassure each other.

However, the interchanges about the Mozart piano quartets recording were of a quite different ilk, coming as they did from a combination of (older) music critics, and some teachers, who seemed to be taking a pedagogical ( i.e. high-handed) approach. Their discussion veered to and fro between (in the case of the teacher), the idea that Mozart had written ‘exactly what he wanted’ in the scores, and that the obligation of the performer was to follow instructions, and the pendant, which was that the performers, whilst playing stylistically, had failed, in some way to offer competition to the performances already in the catalogue. Now, I admit, that every time I play, what I am doing is hubris, but, were I to get on stage, to play the Mozart quartets, worrying about Rubinstein, John Dalley, Michael Tree and David Soyer’s magisterial approach, I might be inclined not to play. I have never sat in a rehearsal, where we worried about whether or not we could beat the competition: artists worry about that 24/7, cradle to grave. We don’t need to articulate it, have it like a crow of doubt on the shoulder.

But these back-and-forths are useful, however much I resist them, as they offer a window onto the questions which revolve around the materials we use, and what we choose to do with them. How can we been faithful? What is our duty, to the composer, and what is their duty to us. And nowhere is this fraught debate more clearly to be heard than in the genesis of Bartok’s solo sonata. When I as in my thirties, and already troubled by aspects of how this piece emerged, and was played, and published, rumours started to spread about an audio recording, made in 1977, of a conversation with the great violinist Rudolph Kolisch, most closely associated with the chamber music of Arnold Schoenberg and his circle. who later became his brother-in-law (1924). Kolisch became central to Schoenberg;’s “Society for Private Musical Performances in Vienna” (Verein für musikalische Privataufführungen).Here it is, without comment, to start things off!  Kolisch clearly did not enjoy the ethnographic pedantry of the interviewer, and this is possibly the only interview with a great musician to be punctuated throughout by a wheezing, vomiting dog. But just listen to the conversation. This bomb went off so slowly for a number of reasons, but there is a fascination question at the heart of it.

Now, it is fair enough to say, Kolisch came from a completely different stable of violin-playing than Bartok’s normal players. After service in the First World War, Kolisch studied Vienna the University and the Musikakademie:  violin with Ottokar Šev?ik, composingwith Franz Schreker and conducting with Franz Schalk. After he moved to the US, he joined the ‘Pro Arte’ Quartet at the University of Madison Wisconsin, which had premiered Bartok’s 5th Quartet, commissioned by Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge Washington, D.C., on 8 April 1935. Now, I am a huge fan of Kolisch, but, before I make a version, my version of his argument, I would like to make the case against him, in this particular.

One of the curious side-results of the 12-tone revolution, was (yet) another divide in playing styles of string players, most particularly violinists. I suspect that it would not be too ‘out there’ to tentatively suggest that this divide is latent in the body of fiddlers who are active in new musics today. It arises from the application of Schoenberg’s innovation to tonal materials, which whilst almost never succeeding in deriving it of tonality, does shut off one of the tools and results of violin-playing as epitomised by the work of Tartini: the use and application of resultant tones, harmonics (upper and lower), and dissonant beats in as both the stuff and staffage of string playing. These are fundamental to the colour and resonance of works such as this:

In order to make these work, the pitches of the notes within chords and melodies are constantly inflected, both in order to pull out the low ‘ring’ of subtones, or the acid complaints which result from their juxtaposition with dissonant beats. The interesting result from the 12-tone system at its purest (such as the Schoenberg Phantasy) is that the hierarchy of tones and gamut is removed, if  not totally, but at least to the point that the music does not reach for these outcomes as a vital tool. Of course, as has been pointed out many times, much Schoenberg’s later music replaced these explicit tonal hierarchies with an extra-emphasis on classical and romantic rhetorical and rhythmic archetypes. This had/has an interesting outcome in players who were/are devoted to this type of material, which is that they cease to use, or prioritise, these technical/harmonic tools/principles, and replace them (consciously or not ) with extra emphasis on other expressive devices and extremes (accentuation, timbre, speed, contrast, emphasis). The results were brilliant, expressive, even expressionist (just listen to the Kolisch Quartet’s performance of the Schubert Quartettsatz), but this extraordinary directness, eschewed certain techniques particularly the use of the harmonics/beats I mentioned above ( I will not ascribe judgement to this) which can been be heard ringing through the performances of similar repertoire by the quartet led by say, Adolph Busch.

An aside: it is possible, that the apparent lack of personality, distinctiveness, in today’s soloists may result from a greater willingness to experiment with a broader ranger of techniques (such as the polarised approaches mentioned above) and less interest in emphasis on particular aesthetic goals or dogmas. The result is that we are more likely to sound different from performance to performance, work to work, era to era. AND there is very little interest in the notion of a superiority of interpretation. The ‘grand manner’, as it used to be called, is not really fit for purpose today, however alluring it sounds with the rose-tinted headphones to the past.

Rudolph Kolisch was deeply involved with Bartok’s music, both with his Kolisch Quartet (which premiered the 5th and 6th Quartets), but never had the close bond that existed between Bartok and the list of players above. And, at the risk of generalising, all of those players, used the Tartini-derived sonic devices to generate an enormously physical range in their playing. So it’s worth noting that Kolisch’s remarks about the misunderstanding of Bartok’s ideals and intentions as heard in the interview that I included above, might well be read as a critique of his own approach. And the live recording of his  1966 Wisconsin performance of the the solo sonata (which I will not include here) fails to persuade, but takes the emphasis of rhetorical, modernistic priorities to a difficult-to-listen-to extreme. If Kolisch wanted to use his playing to emphasise Bartok’s famous statement- [I] “wanted to show Schoenberg that one can use all twelve tones and still remain tonal.” (Bartók Remembered by Malcolm Gilles) – he did not succeed here.

Before going on , here’s a reminder of the violin playing that inspired Bartok at the beginning of his mature compositional life, the dedicatee of his (spurned) Violin Concerto No 1 ,  Stefi Geyer, playing Dvorak.

But, of course, my reasons for giving Rudolph Kolisch a hard time, is because I have been frustrated by many of Menuhin’s relationships with composers for most of my working life as a musician. I have talked and written, extensively about the mostly-positive side of my understanding of this, for some years, and co-curated an exhibition using Menuhin’s working scores a few years ago. Here’s a link to the text of a talk I gave about it all. LINK

But I share the frustration that, time and time again, Menuhin, like Fritz Kreisler, spoke publicly about the transformative experience of working with composers on their music, whilst never digging deep into the collaboration, in the way that distinguished the work of my teacher Louis Krasner with Alban Berg and Schoenberg. (Krasner expressed his frustration at this when Menuhin brought him a copy of his recording of Berg’s Violin Concerto, without asking him about his experience of working with Berg, or with Webern on the -successful- London premiere in 1936). And he used the second and third editions of the sonata (the first included the microtones) to give himself editorial cover. These are very much editions, in the ‘great performer’ mould, without admitting as such. It’s interesting how many mid-twentieth century artists were prepared to publish editions which passed off obvious musical solecisms as some kind of ultra-musical authorities: an example, Ruggerio Ricci’s (who like Menuhin, studied with Louis Persinger) edition of Paganini Nel cor piu non mi sento begins with an outrageous parallel fifth, which has no place in Paganini’s music (harmonically, he was conservative) and does not appear in the only contemporaneous source, Carl Guhr’s transcription.

So the challenge for the performer today, is to work out, where they stand in all of this. In the main, the choice of notes is not a difficult one (apparently): there are some chords to be rectified in the first movement and microtones to be reinserted in the last (1/4 tones an 1/3 tones). All this has been made clear in the revised edition which has been available for 20 years. But there is still the question of what drove the ‘bowdlerisation’ of this piece. I think answers are to be found in a number of instances of ‘star’ players taking on new works, and worrying about their audiences. To explain this better, an anecdote which Louis Krasner told me about Mischa Elman. Shortly after receiving the score of the Berg Violin Concerto, but prior to its premiere in Barcelona on April 16th 1936, Krasner arranged a violin/piano play-through on the Upper West Side in New York City. Leopold Stokowski and Elman were both in attendance, and there was great excitement amongst the select group. However, later in the evening, Louis told me, he noticed Elman standing by his music stand, looking at the music with a puzzled look on his face.

‘I went over to him, and said. “Miska, what is wrong? Don’t you like it?” “Yes, yes, it is wonderful, but…” “But what?” “I cannot possibly perform it.” “Why not?” Elman pointed to a spot in the score. “If I play like this, I will lose $200 from my fee.” And he laughed. I did understand his problem, though. Elman could not possibly make a noise like that [col legno] – he wouldn’t be Elman anymore!’


Alban Berg – Violin Concerto. 2nd Movement Bars 42-43

This anecdote mirrors numerous instances in my experience, of performers worrying that a composer had gone ‘too far’, that, as in this case, the expressionist timbre that they might have demanded, might devalue the cachet, the ‘tone’ that the performer assumed that ‘their’ audience associated with them. It’s probably a dominant reason that pieces are rejected by star performers, along with surprise at the technical challenges of a piece.

So I think, that it is fair enough to say, that a likely reason for Menuhin’s refusal (lets call it what it is), to play the microtones in Bartok’s sonata, was this. In some ways it is quite weird. He had already performed the 2nd concerto, which includes quarter-tone inflections. However, as Kolisch insists in the talk above, these quarter and third tones are very different. They are clearly structural, and, tonalIt’s not possible to put them down to some Eastern European ‘flavour’. In point of fact, the quarter-tones, which only appear in in the cadenza of the concerto, are equally structural, a tonal diminution, which in some way work in the same way as the massively reduced reduced material at the end of the 3rd Quartet. Michael Finnissy has spoke about how such tonal ‘squashing’ lies at the heart of his ear, his tonality. Discussions about whether Bartok was/is tonal or not, are really moot today, and the tenor of this discourse in the 1977 audio recording is, frankly, awkwardly dated.

But the brutal fact is that there has always been an awkward gap between the technical/aesthetic parameters as understood by performers, and those as expressed by critics, and consequently, projected onto the way that performers have been encouraged to view audiences, often by promoters and agents. I suppose that it all comes down to the notion of beauty. If like me, you were brought up on the the romantic poets of the the early 19th century, then this aesthetic question has an ethical answer, expressed with most famous, clarity, and thus, passing it’s own aesthetic ‘test’, in the last stanza. It is, of course, John Keats’ Ode on a Grecian Urn. Here’s the last verse:

O Attic shape! Fair attitude! with brede
         Of marble men and maidens overwrought,
With forest branches and the trodden weed;
         Thou, silent form, dost tease us out of thought
As doth eternity: Cold Pastoral!
         When old age shall this generation waste,
                Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe
Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say’st,
         “Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all
                Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”
Like it or not, across the artistic communities, rather more lip-service than observance has been given to this dictum. In my personal experience, I have been reprimanded for playing certain composers with too much attention to what they wrote, and not enough as to how it might be made palatable. Beethoven and Schubert are obvious exemplars in this regard. And any musician worth their salt can reel off a number of works where it was felt that the composer needed some ‘help’ to render their work acceptable. In some ways, it all comes down to how much the artist is supposed to in- or ob-trude. After a performance I gave of the Respighi Sonata on the South Bank when I was 23, the Independent opined:
‘…the sheer vehemence of Sheppard’s phrasing is not the sort of thing that the Endellion Quartet go in for…’
Which was clearly not intended ( I maybe wrong) as a critique of either party, but my way of seeing it, has always been, that if the composer is throwing rocks (and Respighi does) then so should I, and not soften them up into silky pillows. But there is not broad agreement on this topic, and the way that I see it, is that the young Menuhin felt that his New York audience, would not take well to ‘out of tune’ violin playing in the peroration of a piece which he already worried was going to be too much for them. I sympathise with him, and speaking personally, there’s a certain freedom attendant on 1. Not been wildly popular/famous 2. being associated with a broad range of musical languages and styles. This was first made clear to me by the wonderful piano teacher and pedagogue, Alexander Kelly, after I had performed Penderecki ‘s abrasively dramatic Three Minatures.
Well, because I knew it was you, I was confident that that noise was, well …right!’
Of course, Menuhin is far from being the only performer to counsel composers to write something differently. You might say that it is one of the integers of collaboration. But the polarised questions always will be, should the composer adjust the piece to fit the performer?, or should the performer adjust their playing, who they are, to fit the piece? (and points on various curves between these two extremes).  Here’s an example. In the first 18 months of this century, the composer David Matthews was completing an extraordinary set of 15 Fugues for solo for me. These were written in 4, 3, and 2 parts, and we set some rules: there should be no episodic excursions (as can be heard in all three Bach fugues for violin alone) – so no cheating – and the material should be written on two staves for contrapuntal clarity (and lines should always remain true their respective staves, whether or not tessiturae moved up or down). So it should be relatively clear, that convenience for the player was not a concern. Here’s an example of one of them, which pushes the violin to the limits.

At round about the same time, David was writing a concertante work for a very well known string player. In one of our many workshop sessions on his hour-long cycle, which I premiered in Munich in 2003, he observed, with a smile.
You know, it’s a little strange: your response to this ridiculous difficulties is to say, let me work out how to do it? But I just got a phone call from [….] saying – ‘I really don’t like this doesn’t sound very good, can we change it?’!’
I think that expresses the divide quite well.