The 20th century’s great musical maverick and forerunner of our sampling, appropriating, multicultural world, Béla Bartók may well be the hippest composer in the canon. The first to synthesize the folk elements of his native Hungary with the avant-garde of his day, he was also a kind of proto-ethnomusicologist, collecting and transcribing music from remote villages and honing a unique, often abrasive musical language from a fusion of the two traditions. This exotic sound world is a precursor of today’s world music – among other interesting hybrids.
It’s music that still feels fresh in the hands of violinist David LePage and pianist Viv McLean, who led Monday’s recital at the Hungarian Cultural Centre commemorating the seventieth anniversary of the composer’s death. Playing to a packed and enthusiastic audience in the centre’s intimate concert room, the duo covered several of his minor chamber pieces, a mixed bag of the well known and obscure.
This composer seems to have a special affinity for the violin, often pushing the instrument to its musical (and physical) limits, as LePage ably demonstrated in the evening’s opener, ‘Rhapsody no. 1’. It’s a bracing, bruising trip around the strings, alternating manic fiddling and plucking with soaring passages that nevertheless remain stubbornly dissonant. LePage’s muscular interpretation is well suited to this material, and with his six o’clock shadow and habit of stomping in the more emphatic sections, he looks the part, too. Amplified by the cosy dimensions of the room, his instrument sounded at times like a miniature gypsy orchestra, occasionally drowning out the piano.
McLean made amends immediately afterwards with Liszt’s ‘Six Consolations’, giving LePage a well-deserved break. These pieces have the cascading melancholy of Chopin’s salon music without quite attaining the latter’s poetry, but McLean brought out their modest store of effects well. He had more fireworks to display in his second showcase, Allegro Barbaro. Bartók’s brief outburst for solo piano rumbles ominously and builds to many pounding crescendi but retains the rhythm and essence of a peasant dance; McLean, whose Bartók sounds elegant even in the more frenetic passages, communicated this quality superbly.
Dance was the foundation and inspiration for Bartók’s music and it returned often in this programme. It appears in both the Hungarian Folk Songs, adapted for violin from a voice setting, and the lesser known Hungarian folk tunes, often in the characteristic form of a drone beneath the melody. These miniatures are Bartók at his most lyrical and LePage and McLean find hidden pockets of emotion in their fleeting reflections on exile and loss (Bartók himself would eventually go into exile in 1940 to protest his country’s alliance with Nazi Germany. He died in New York.).
Two more Hungarians provide musical context with contrasting pieces. Ernő Dohnányi, adopts folk flourishes in Andante rubato alla zingarese (“The Gypsy Andante”), but his is a polished, drawing room take on traditional music. Jenő Hubay is all extroverted peasant bravado in Hejre Kati, tumbling through key signatures and sawing two or three strings at once in the style of Ravel’s Tzigane. It’s a real barnburner and earned LePage sustained applause. Yet neither man has Bartók’s adventurous sense of tonality and listening to all three back-to-back throws a spotlight on Bartók’s peculiar genius – where they enriched the idiom with folk themes, he invented his own.
Still recovering from the Hubay and just before launching into the finale, Bartók’s ‘Romanian Dances’, LePage thanked the audience and said it had been a beautiful place to play before adding by way of apology that it may have also been a little loud. By the end of the last dance, no one particularly seemed to mind.
Viv McLean & David LePage play Bartók was part of the ongoing programme of events at the Hungarian Cultural Centre, London.