Bartók & me
I find it interesting people’s responses when the composer Béla Bartók is mentioned. Those with a deep knowledge of music will speak about his importance as an original voice in the 20th century. There are others who have learnt the piano or violin as children who say that they played some of his short pieces which were hard but rewarding when they got the irregular rhythmic patterns right. And then there are those who say that while they believe what the others have said however to them the music feels dense and highly sophisticated and they’re not sure what they think about him.
My response to his music combines all three of these because, while I have an understanding of his structural innovation and mastery of instrumentation, every time I hear his music it feels like it’s for the first time, so fresh and original is his compositional voice yet demanding and complex to understand at the same time. [Beethoven has exactly the same impact on me, by the way.] For me, what’s special about Bartók is the combination of intense compression aligned with passion and romanticism. I find all his music exhilarating listening.
The experience that really got me understanding Bartók was quite a funny one, in retrospect. It happened in 1993 at Musica Viva’s Mittagong Easter Music Festival when I turned pages for pianist Michael Kieran Harvey as he performed the First Violin Sonata with Kirsten Williams. To be so close to the performance was amazing, made more so on this occasion as I didn’t know the work and I hadn’t been to a rehearsal. Of course, in the frenetic first movement I missed a page turn (Michael still talks to me, so it must have happened to him before…) which meant that I concentrated even more intently for the rest of the work. The piece is pretty extreme, with the two instruments seeming to be playing in the same time space but on entirely different planes. Like a lot of his great works he dedicated it to a woman, on this occasion the violinist Jelly d’Arányi; you can sense his respect for her as a performer because of the challenges he throws at the violinist and also as a person through the beauty and intensity of the violin melodies. Sitting next to the piano, the work came over as something personal and fresh and embedded itself in me. It’s one of my Desert Island Discs works now!
Even though Bartók was a pianist some of his greatest works are for strings, and I’ve been lucky to hear many of them in concerts. One of my favourites is his Fifth String Quartet, which has a wonderful symmetry and balance in its form, and I’m really looking forward to hearing the Kelemen Quartet perform it on their tour this month. And because there’s not a piano involved, I can relax and not worry for the page turner.
Director of Business Development, Concerts