Sunday, November 30, 2008

Bartok: Violin Concerto #2

We will take a few more tentative steps into modern classical music today as we listen to Béla Bartók's Second Violin Concerto.

This is the first time I've listened to Bartok here at 101 Classical Music CDs, and despite the fact that I've been listening to classical music for some 30 years, it took me a surprisingly long time to acclimate to this work. This extremely complex concerto only started to make sense to me after three very close listens.
Anne-Sophie Mutter, violin
Seiji Ozawa and the Boston Symphony Orchestra
Bela Bartok (1881-1945)
Violin Concerto #2
Deutsche Grammophon, 1991

And this is why, if you are still new to classical music and are just starting up your collection of recordings, I would suggest you do not buy this CD until you've first become familiar with key works from earlier classical music eras. For some additional thoughts on the various challenges and rewards of listening to modern classical music, see listener note #6 below.

One other housekeeping item before we get into the listener notes: the CD I own isn't currently available at Amazon as a standalone disc, but it is available as part of an excellent 3-CD compilation of performances by Anne-Sophie Mutter (see also the graphical link to Amazon below). If you are interested in a good survey of the work of this amazingly talented violinist--and you'd also like to leave me a tip in my tip jar--feel free to click on these links to visit Amazon.

Listener Notes for Bartok's Violin Concerto #2:
1) It is interesting to hear Anne-Sophie Mutter's playing style after having just spent time with a violin playing prodigy from a few decades earlier, Michael Rabin. While listening to Mutter really dig her bow into the strings, I can't help but notice how much more florid, powerful and masculine Mutter's playing style is compared to Rabin's (how politically incorrect does that sound?). Of course, as a former trumpet player, I'm stating these opinions with absolutely no context on how to play the violin.

2) It's worth listening a couple of times to Mutter's cadenza in the first movement (from 12:40 to 14:33). If you are like me and your exposure to cadenzas is limited to the works of classical-era composers (Haydn, Mozart, etc), you'll find this to be an extraordinary-sounding solo.

3) Listen at 15:43 in the first movement to how Mutter picks off that ultra high note.

4) There are two notably beautiful passages in the second movement of this concerto: at the very beginning (0:00-4:35), and at the very end (9:09-9:55). But here's a caveat for those of you new to classical music: most modern classical music isn't really all that beautiful, at least not in the sense that, say, a Mozart concerto is beautiful. In many cases I'd argue that it's more accurate to describe the "beautiful" portions of many 20th century classical music works by using made-up compound words like creepy-beautiful, or eerie-beautiful, or weird-beautiful. Or perhaps "you'll-get-used-to-it-beautiful."

5) Listen to the cellos and violas whapping at their strings with their bows in the second movements (at 7:37, 7:42 and 7:59). An interesting sound effect.

6) Let me close this post by discussing a typical conundrum of modern classical music. Listen to the first 14 seconds of the third movement a few times in a row (this is where the string section and then the violin soloist state the initial themes of the movement).

Is this passage distinctive? Yes, certainly. Is it extremely complex? Yes, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. Do you have to listen to it several times to "get it"? Yes, and that's also not necessarily a bad thing--music that's "too easy" won't hold your attention for long, but truly challenging music can hold your interest for years, as it will reward you with new nuances each time you listen to it.

But can you hum or sing this melody? Will it stick in your mind when you're walking home from the symphony hall?

Ah. Now, we face head-on a key problem with 20th century music. There is often so much nuance and complexity baked into music from this era that--for lack of a better term--there's no tune. When you think of the greatest works of the so-called "golden era" of classical music (arguably the classical and romantic periods), these works were often highly complex and nuanced, but the listener didn't have to work so hard to get at the fundamental essence of the music. To me, many modern classical compositions overwhelm the listener with too much complexity. And more often than not, this excess complexity only obscures the beauty and musicality of the work itself.

I hope to discuss more of the challenges of listening to modern classical music in future posts.


Chantal said...

Howdy, Daniel....

Bartok 2 is my absolute favorite violin concerto, of all time, ever ever ever. I listen to this piece about every other week or so, and never grow tired of its beauty. I was quite happy to see you were writing about it!

However, I found myself inching in to modern music's corner the further I got in to your comments about this. I will probably elaborate on this more on my own blog the next day or two, but I just want to mention a few things. I hope I don't come across as argumentative or rude, as I am certainly not trying to be!

I'm not convinced at all, that anyone has to be familiar with major works of previous eras to appreciate this work, or another newer work. We don't say that about visual art, do we? Or Literature? Why so with classical music? For perhaps some completely obscure out there pieces of music written recently, perhaps. However not all music needs to be well prefaced with music of earlier eras. My love of Mozart's violin concertos--all of which are delightful and charming, have nothing to do with my love for Bartok's piece. I fear that we are scaring people away from more modern music when we say that people should listen to earlier stuff to really get, or understand, or like, or appreciate, this newer stuff. Newer music is not too lofty or weird or whatever for people to love, like, and enjoy, without knowing the warhorses of before.

And too much complexity? Maybe we are too used to the big Mozart, Brahms, and Beethoven works! From my point of view, I am thrilled to hear a work that literally makes my ears work harder--it's a breath of fresh air to me. It's a change from the norm, it's veering off the road I'm used to, and for that, I am forever grateful to newer music.

Those are just a few thoughts for chewing on...I'll post a longer blog about this in the next day or two, and perhaps I will be able to explain myself better. In the meantime, happy CD listening my friend! As always, I look forward to your next installment!

Daniel Koontz said...

Hi Chantal! Thanks for your thoughts. I hear you, and I can understand the argument (for art or music) that you don't need to be familiar with prior eras to be able to appreciate modern or current works.

But in my opinion, it definitely helps deepen one's understanding in almost all cases. The music (or art, or poetry, or literature) of today either builds on--or deliberately throws off--the formal structure of past eras.

In poetry, Ezra Pound had to have iambic pentameter in order to rebel from it. In music, Schoenberg had to have the prior era's 8 tone scale in order to rebel and work with his whole tone scale. And in art, you needed to have representative work first in order to have abstract art.

So there's merit to both sides of the argument. But in my view, much (though not all) of the classical music of the modern era is really challenging to the novice listener. Advanced listeners may find music by artists like Bartok accessible, but novice listeners in many instances find it TOO hard, and thus get turned off from classical music entirely. I guess I wrote this post with that listener in mind, not the more advanced listener.

Once again, thanks for your thoughts and I look forward to reading your own post on this subject!!