VERESS: String Trio / Vilde Frang, vln; Lawrence Power, vla; Nicolas Altstaedt, cel / BARTÓK: Piano Quintet / Frang, Barnabas Kelemen, vln; Katalin Kokas, vla; Altstaedt, cel; Alexander Lonquich, pno / Alpha 458
Everyone knows at least some of the music of Bartók, but I doubt that many even know who Sándor Veress was, let alone know what his music sounds like. Veress (1907-1992) was also a Hungarian, born in Transylvania, who studied with Lajtha, Kodály and Bartók who taught music theory and composition at the Conservatoire in Berne from 1950 onward. His String Trio is considered to be his serial masterpiece but, like so many such works, Veress presents a fairly conservative approach to serialism, integrating the 12-tone system into his own pre-existing model of composition. Nonetheless, it is a fascinating piece.
Veress’ Trio is only in two fairly long movements, “Andante” and “Allegro molto.” Both of the note-rows he chose have expressive, melodic qualities, making the piece fairly digestible for those classical lovers who generally shun serial music. In fact, I would say that this trio has a certain kinship with Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht in its original form for string sextet though it is much closer to later Schoenberg (say, of the Serenade) than to that pre-serial work. I did, however, very much like the form and shape of the work, and if I have any caveat about the actual performance given here it is that the players have, to my ears, too “lean” of a sound, as if they were playing with straight tone. Only cellist Nicolas Altstaedt, whose brainchild this CD was, plays with appropriate warmth. This is not to say that the performance is entirely cold, but it is a bit on the chilly side. The second, fast movement is much more objective in quality; here, the tone row chosen produces a more obscure and harder-to-grasp melodic line, yet it is still one that sounds to the naked ear more consonant harmonically than it really is. The music is highly syncopated but in a Hungarian rather than in a jazz sense, and there is a great deal of pizzicato playing as well as passages where the musicians knock on the wood of their instruments. Eventually the music becomes quite busy and complex indeed, with two instruments at a time playing edgy rhythmic figures while the third (generally the cello) plays a melodic line above. At the 7:27 mark, all three strings participate in some peculiar, almost backwards sort of syncopation.
Although Bartók is a known quantity in the musical world, this Piano Quintet is not. Dating from 1904, when the composer was only 23 years old, it is very much in the late Romantic tradition, so much so that it might almost be a very late work by Brahms—at least until about 3:16 into the first movement, when we get the first of several outbursts of rhythmic and harmonic daring that point to the mature composer to come. But I will say one thing, and that is that in this piece the performers do not sound cold at all. On the contrary, they play with uncommon heart and spirit, as if they themselves were giving here the world premiere of this unusual work.
The odd thing about it is that parts of it sound somewhat musically schizophrenic. At 8:45 into the first movement, Bartók suddenly switched gears and wrote some surprisingly edgy (but not quite yet fully Bartókian) figures that make the music suddenly explode. After a dozen or so bars he calms down and returns to more harmonically consonant territory, but that outburst tells us that he had something very different percolating in the back of his mind even then. There are also some interesting rising chromatics at the 11:05 mark—and the movement ends very abruptly. The second movement is not the slow one—that is the third—but rather a lively “Scherzando” within which Bartók repeats some rhythmic figures for a few bars (a technique he would return to in his maturity) and adds some pounding, driving chords in the piano part. This frenzied activity suddenly breaks off at 2:47 to present us with another very lyrical, Brahmsian melody, played broadly by the first violin and cello, even tossing in a phrase borrowed from Richard Strauss, before the return to the scampering figures.
But then there is the strange, modal opening of the slow movement, and this sounds like the Bartók we know. True, he makes it more consonant via the piano part, but when the strings re-enter the melodic and harmonic progression remain rather strange for 1904, at least until we hear a typically “Gypsy”-type melody played by the violins and viola. This is altogether strange music for 1904. The “Adagio” begins in a fairly conventional style before moving into more daring harmonies and rhythms around the 10:30 mark. The finale, marked “Poco a poco vivace,” presents us with a theme that is constantly interrupted, bits of it repeated and doubling back on itself before moving on to the next idea.
No two ways about it, this is a very offbeat album, particularly in today’s world when so many classical listeners want music to soothe them and rock them to sleep. This one will wake you up, guaranteed!
—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley
Follow me on Twitter (@Artmusiclounge) or Facebook (as Monique Musique)