Béla Bartók


Sz. 111, BB116

About this work

Violinist Joseph Szigeti motivated this work, asking pianist/composer Bartók for something the two of them could play with clarinetist Benny Goodman. Szigeti even sent Bartók some of Goodman's jazz trio records to provide an idea of the clarinetist's style. Szigeti and Goodman were hoping for a two-movement piece in the Hungarian lassù-friss format (like Bartók's two rhapsodies for violin and piano and Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsodies), music that would fit on a single 78 rpm record. Bartók instead provided a three-movement work, twice the expected duration. His piano writing here is uncharacteristically restrained, merely supporting the other two instruments, which enjoy some brilliant if strenuous material. The title Contrasts indicates that Bartók explores the timbral differences between the instruments rather than reconciling and blending them.

The first movement, "Verbunkos" (Recruiting Dance), in moderate tempo, follows an ABA structure, but a complicated one. The marching first theme, featuring violin pizzicatos inspired by the Blues movement of Ravel's Violin Sonata, is angular and playful, and undergoes some variation before a second, folk-like meno mosso theme arrives and submits to its own development. The movement's third section initially seems like further development, the opening theme returning in fragmented and tonally unhinged form. The clarinet takes a cadenza; it will be the violin's turn in the finale.

The second movement, "Pihenö" (Relaxation), marked Lento, is a slow interlude characteristic of Bartók's "night music," mingling mystery with repose, and even suggesting gamelan music in the piano part. Finally comes the "Sebes" (Fast Dance). Here, the clarinetist switches from an instrument in A to a B flat clarinet, and the violinist picks up a deliberately mistuned instrument, sawing away in the beginning like a village fiddler. (The conventional instruments return in the movement's gentler central section.) Although Bartók employs Hungarian-style themes, he seems not to quote any authentic folk tunes. The violinist takes a cadenza going into the third section, and the highly virtuosic movement ends with a grotesque, shrill, comic coda.