Viola Concerto (Bartók)
The Bartók Viola Concerto, Sz. 120, BB 128 (see also Concerto for Viola and Orchestra), was one of the last pieces written by Béla Bartók of Hungary. He began composing the work while living in Saranac Lake, New York, in July 1945. The piece was commissioned by William Primrose, a respected violist of the 20th Century. Primrose requested this concerto because he knew that Bartók could provide a challenging piece for him to perform, stating that Bartók should not “feel in any way proscribed by the apparent technical limitations of the instrument.” Unfortunately Bartók was suffering from the terminal stages of leukemia when he began writing the viola concerto and he left only sketches at the time of his death.
Primrose asked Bartók to write the concerto in the winter of 1945. There are several letters between Bartók and William Primrose regarding this piece. One letter was written September 8, 1945 where Bartók claims that he is nearly done with the piece and only has the orchestration to complete. It is when viewing the sketches that it is clear that this was not truly the case. When Bartók died, the piece was finished by his close friend Tibor Serly in 1949. The first revision was done by Béla Bartók’s son Peter Bartók and Paul Neubauer in 1995, and it was revised one other time by Csaba Erdélyi. The concerto was premiered on December 2, 1949 by the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra with Antal Doráti conducting and William Primrose as violist.
The concerto has three movements, and Bartók states in a letter dated August 5, 1945 that the general concept is, “a serious Allegro, a Scherzo, a (rather short) slow movement, and a finale beginning Allegretto and developing the tempo to an Allegro molto. Each movement, or at least 3 of them will [be] preceded by a (short) recurring introduction (mostly solo for the viola), a kind of ritornello.” (The aforementioned idea of a thematic introduction to each movement was also used in Bartok's String Quartet no. 6 Sz. 114) The first movement is in a loose sonata form. The slow second movement is significantly shorter, and closes with a very short scherzo movement that is an attacca right into the third movement. The time stamps, as seen in Bartók’s manuscript, states that the first movement should be 10’20”, the second 5’10” and the third 4’45”.
The first movement of the concerto is said to loosely contain a phrase that is reminiscent of the Scottish tune “Gin a Body Meet a Body, Colmin’ Thro’ the Rye.” This is probably done to pay honor to William Primrose’s heritage.
Tibor Serly's edition is orchestrated for: piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets in Bb, 2 bassoons, 3 horns in F, 3 trumpets in Bb, 2 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion and strings.
Peter Bartók and Paul Neubauer's edition is orchestrated for: piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes (2nd doubling cor anglais), 2 clarinets in Bb, 2 bassoons (2nd doubling double bassoon), 4 horns in F, 3 trumpets in Bb, tenor trombone, bass trombone, tuba, timpani, percussion (2), strings.
There are some large discrepancies between the different editions of this concerto, which are caused because so little is known in regards to Bartóks own intentions regarding this concerto. Some of these are as simple as the metronome markings for each movement. Each editor also had very different interpretations of fingerings for the concerto. One edition suggests beginning on the open A string, while others begin on the D string. The Peter Bartók edition of this concerto also has interesting fingerings because Paul Neubauer edited most of the viola part.
There are also many bowings that differ between the editions, some of them done specifically to accent certain rhythms and high notes, such as in mm. 8-10 in the Tibor Serly edition where William Primrose included some bowing suggestions to emphasize the syncopation of the line.
Overall, there are a significant amount of surface level discrepancies such as bowings, fingerings and dynamics. However, there are also several changes other than editor markings. In the Peter Bartók revision there are measures that are completely added, missing or with note changes. This can cause several discrepancies. If the soloist has prepared one edition and the orchestra orders a different one then problems will arise since there are places were measures are amended to as well as omitted. Another problematic situations arise if the soloist is studying one edition and then switches to a different edition.
Omissions and Amendments between Editions
Peter Bartók explains, “It became clear that we could not merely compare the printed score with the final manuscript prepared from my father’s sketches by Tibor Serly, and discover engraving errors, but we would have to start with the sketch itself.”
The first of the note changes begins in measure 44 on beat two, where there is an added D sharp as a double stop against a D natural. In the next measure, the first beat is transposed down an octave, probably to facilitate performance. Everything remains consistent until measure 54. At this point Tibor Serly has the viola resting, and yet Peter Bartók has actually included two measure of a melody to the soloists’ line. The most significant changes have yet to appear. Tibor Serly’s edition places measure 67 as a 6/4 bar, but Peter Bartók splits it into a 4/4 bar plus a 3/4 bar, and he actually adds a group of triplets. It is now clear why an orchestra must be absolutely certain which edition they are performing and ensure everyone has the same parts. This trend of alterations continues as Peter Bartók adds octave displacements, and even omits what is measure 74 in the Tibor Serly score. It appears that with most, if not all of the changes, Csaba Erdélyi agrees with the Peter Bartók edition as opposed to that of Tibor Serly.
- Béla Bartók, Concerto for Viola and Orchestra. Compact disc. Hong-Mei Xiao, HNH International Ltd, 1998. Conductor János Kovács and soloist Hong-Mei Xiao playing both the Peter Bartók and the original Tibor Serly. This CD will be useful for comparing the two versions.
- Béla Bartók, Concerto for Viola and Orchestra; William Primrose; Otto Klemperer conducting the Concertgebouw Orchestra; Live recording, Amsterdam, 10 January 1951; Archiphon, 1992.
- Béla Bartók, Concerto for Viola and Orchestra. Yuri Bashmet, soloist and Pierre Boulez conducting. Compact disc. Hong-Mei Xiao: HNH International Ltd, 1998.
- Béla Bartók, Concerto for Viola and Orchestra; Yehudi Menuhin; Antal Dorati conducting the New Philharmonia Orchestra; EMI, 1991.
- Bartók, Béla. Concerto for Viola and Orchestra. Hong-Mei Xiao. János Kovács. HNH International Ltd. 1998. Compact disc.
- Bartók, Béla. Concerto for Viola and Orchestra. Yuri Bashmet. Pierre Boulez. Deutsche Grammophon GmbH. 2008. Compact disc.
- Bartók, Béla. Viola Concerto. Paul Zukerman. Leonard Slatkin. BMG Music. 1991. Compact disc.
- Bartók, Béla. Viola Concerto. Csaba Erdélyi. Marc Taddei. Concordance. 2002. Compact disc.
- Bartók, Béla. Viola Concerto. Csaba Erdélyi. Marc Taddei. Concordance. 2002. Compact disc.
- Béla Bartók, Viola Concerto, Yo-Yo Ma (on a vertical viola), tracks 5-6-7 on The New York Album, Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, conducted by David Zinman, Sony Classical, 1993. Compact disc.
- Béla Bartók, Concerto for Viola and Orchestra; Kim Kashkashian; Peter Eötvös conducting the Netherlands Radio Chamber Orchestra; ECM-Records, 2000.
- Béla Bartók, Viola Concerto: Facsimile Edition of the Autograph Draft, Nelson Dellamaggiore, editor (Tampa: Rinaldi Printing, 1995): 24.
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- Bartók, Béla. Viola Concerto, with a commentary by László Somfai and a fair transcription of the draft with notes by Nelson Dellamaggiore. Homosassa, FL: Bartok Records, 1995. ISBN 0-9641961-0-7
- Bartók, Béla. Viola Concerto: Facsimile Edition of the Autograph Draft., edited by Nelson Dellamaggiore. Tampa: Rinaldi Printing, 1995.
- Bartók, Béla. Viola Concerto (Op. posth.), revised version by Nelson Dellamaggiore and Peter Bartók. Reduction for viola and piano, viola part edited by Paul Neubauer. Boosey & Hawkes 9854. London and New York: Boosey & Hawkes, 1995.
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