Bartók: Kossuth; Two Portaits; Suite No.1

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COMPOSERS: Bartok
LABELS: Naxos
ALBUM TITLE: Bartók
WORKS: Kossuth; Two Portaits; Suite No.1
PERFORMER: Michael Ludwig (violin); Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra/JoAnn Falletta
CATALOGUE NO: 8.573307

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Before Bartók found his own voice as a composer, he fell under the spell of Richard Strauss. He made a solo piano transcription of Ein Heldenleben (and apparently played it brilliantly), and just as there’s a battle scene in Strauss’s piece, so there is, too, in Bartók’s own 1903 symphonic poem, Kossuth. But Bartók’s battle isn’t a vainglorious affair like Strauss’s: it depicts the struggle between the forces of the 19th-century Hungarian revolutionary leader Lajos Kossuth and the Austrian oppressors, and even uses a distorted version of the Austrian national anthem. It’s the nationalist fervour of Bartók’s work that bears his hallmark more than the music itself.

Two years after Kossuth, Bartók composed his Suite No. 1, scored for a huge orchestra. Here again, the form and not the content is characteristic: five interconnected movements arranged in an arch-like pattern, just as in Bartók’s Fourth and Fifth String Quartets.

The Two Portraits Op. 5 arose out of Bartók’s love for a young violinist, and the first of them derives from an early concerto he wrote for her. The two pieces are strongly contrasted: the first idealised and romanticised, the second – an arrangement of a piano Bagatelle – bitter and angry. JoAnn Falletta and the Buffalo Philharmonic rather miss the savagery of the latter, but they’re on fine form elsewhere, and the disc provides invaluable insight into Bartók’s formative years.

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Misha Donat