Contrasts, BB 116
October 5, 2014 – Osmo Vänska, clarinet; Erin Keefe, violin; Gilles Vonsattel, piano
If the celebrated “king of swing” clarinetist Benny Goodman had not commissioned a work from Bartók, the composer probably would never have written a chamber work that included a wind instrument—this was the sole instance. In 1938 Bartók’s old friend, violinist Joseph Szigeti, wrote to him on behalf of Goodman to commission a chamber work the two could play together. The clarinetist made some very specific requests: he wanted a short work—six to seven minutes so it could fit on two sides of a 78 rpm recording—that should contain two movements, one in each of the Hungarian styles lassú (slow) and friss (fast) that Bartók had made so popular in his Rhapsodies. The composer, however, couldn’t help but respond as he had to previous commission requirements: he wrote what he wanted!
Bartók did begin along the specified parameters, completing two movements—now the outer two—probably in August 1938, though they were considerably longer than expected. Goodman, Szigeti, and pianist Endre Petri performed these Two Dances, as they were called, at Carnegie Hall on January 9, 1939. The opening Verbunkos (Recruiting dance) movement possessed a livelier character than that of a lassú introduction, so already in September 1938 Bartók composed a slow movement to separate his two dances, though he waited until December to inform Goodman.
The premiere of this complete version, finally named Contrasts, occurred in April 1940 when Bartók came to New York and played the piano part in a now-famous Columbia recording with Goodman and Szigeti. The same trio played the work live in Boston on February 4, 1941, and after Goodman’s three-year period of exclusive performance rights expired, chamber groups everywhere took up the colorful piece.
As a proper recruiting dance should, the opening movement struts and postures, and includes the typical kind of melodic ornamentation that reflects Bartók’s familiarity with the national style. Both violin and clarinet are given ample opportunities to show off. After the initial march idea, the composer introduces a memorable theme that is ripe with characteristic Hungarian short-long rhythms. Just before the end Bartók provides a clarinet cadenza that displays the instrument’s range both in pitch and dynamics.
The slow movement, Pihenő (Relaxation), projects a more serious quality, incorporating sounds that biographer Halsey Stevens suggests were inspired by Bartók’s study of Indonesian gamelan music. A brilliant shimmering passage introduces trills, pizzicato, and murmuring motives associated with what Bartók called “night music,” first introduced in his Out of Doors for piano in 1926.
For the only time in any of his works, Bartók employed scordatura (unusual tuning of a string instrument) here in his whirlwind finale. Sebes (Fast dance) begins with the violin taking up a fiddle tuned with the bottom string raised and the top string lowered by a half step. As a result his opening chords sound like the beginning of a danse macabre—similar to Saint-Saëns’s famous example, which also uses scordatura. Bartók also has the clarinetist trade an A clarinet for one in B-flat in the movement’s outer sections, which changes the color slightly, but also reflects the curious tonality of the work—one of its contrasts?—ending in a different key than it began.
Bartók interrupts the movement’s frantic perpetual motion for a slower middle section that features a plaintive melody and eerie washes of sound. Here the piano creeps in contrary motion against the slithering of the violin and clarinet, all in a complex meter of 13/8. The composer employs myriad effects from glissandos and “honking” grace notes to a cadenza of violin pyrotechnics to make this one of chamber music’s most riveting finales.
© Jane Vial Jaffe