Approaching Bartok’s Rhapsody no 1 for performance.

It’s always thrilling to listen to a composer perform their own music, especially a gifted performer. Thanks to the wealth of material on YouTube, it is so easy now to access a huge range of historical performances.  Sitting down with the score to listen to Bartok performing his First Rhapsody with Szigeti is a fascinating experience . Apart from subtle nuances of timing and colours which cannot be notated, there are at times dramatic contrasts between the recording and the score. In the performance, rallentandos sometimes start before marked, or an animated accelerando sweeps the listener to the next section (which is not marked in the music); a rich sonority lingers over a rest, without any pedal indication. Sometimes the rhythm is markedly different, with triplets played instead of the written trill figure, or a semiquaver tremolo instead of a simple syncopation, which is much closer to realising Bartok’s orchestration in the version for violin and orchestra. The fashion of the era is revealed with some split octaves which would be frowned upon today.

Without the minutiae of today’s recording techniques to smooth over imperfections, we hear the raw energy of the live performance, and a few hair-raising ensemble moments. Would Bartok have played differently were this a studio recording?  Did he consider this a definitive performance, or did adrenalin and reacting in the moment influence some of his musical decisions? What do we do in approaching music that hasn’t been recorded?  If we can’t email or call the composer to ask if they meant those slurs to continue throughout the whole piece, or if that strange pedal marking is really what they wanted. To me, listening to this wonderful recording is a reminder of how limited our standard musical notation is, and the risk of slavish devotion to the score which may actually contradict the composers intensions. We can only respond to these black dots through our understanding and insight, filtered by experience and instincts sharpened by our aural library. By doing so, music from the past becomes contemporary once more, finding a place in another era.


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