News

TSO takes on a Hungarian Master

27 November 2023
Written by Stephanie Eslake

TSO performs Bartok

If you look into the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra’s impressive back catalogue of recordings, you’ll find some big-name classical composers on the album covers: Strauss, Mozart, and Schubert to name a few. There are plenty of releases that feature beloved Australian composers, too – from Elena Kats-Chernin to Peter Sculthorpe and Peggy Glanville-Hicks.

Yet the TSO’s latest project shines the spotlight on a composer whose work “you wouldn’t necessarily expect an Australian orchestra to record”, according to violist William Newbery. He’s talking about Béla Bartók – the Hungarian composer who may be a less-than-predictable choice for this island orchestra, but whose music sits alongside the greats in old and new music alike.

“His music is full of shape and colour,” William says. “It sings and it dances – and once you're comfortable with his harmonic language, it speaks as eloquently and beautifully as Beethoven or Brahms.”

RECORDING THE "FAST, VIRTUOSIC AND FUN" BÉLA BARTÓK

This year, the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra has been recording Bartók’s 1936 Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta, and 1939 Divertimento for String Orchestra. In a video, Chief Conductor and Artistic Director Eivind Aadland described Bartók’s music as “fast, virtuosic and fun…a celebration of life”. His connection to Bartók is deeply personal, with only a few degrees of separation between them.

In his early days as a violin student, Eivind studied and performed with Yehudi Menuhin – the prestigious violinist who commissioned and premiered Bartók’s 1944 Sonata for Solo Violin (one of the last works he would ever compose). Eivind also learnt with Sándor Végh, who played the Hungarian premiere of Bartók’s 1934 String Quartet No. 5.

The conductor’s enthusiasm in leading the TSO orchestra through new Bartók recordings is therefore to be expected. And while this excitement may be contagious, it’s a feeling that also comes naturally to many of those involved in the project.

A DREAM COME TRUE FOR THE TSO

To record Bartók’s works, the TSO turned the Federation Concert Hall into a studio – bringing in gold-standard producers from ABC to facilitate the recordings.

ABC Classic FM sound engineer Veronika Vincze, who has a long history of recording and broadcasting the TSO, reveals “the atmosphere was so optimistic, good-natured, and creative!”.

“I love the sound they make,” Veronika says of the orchestra. “I want to bring the experience of their beautiful music-making to audiences who cannot be there in person. I like it when intimate details can be brought to light with the help of technology.”

Veronika describes the recording session as “Bartók’s dreams coming true”. In Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta, the orchestra was positioned in a layout that Bartók himself had designed. (Unusually, the strings are divided into two independent orchestras, sitting on different sides of the same stage.) The number of musicians in this TSO recording also wasn’t too far from the number of players in the Basel Chamber Orchestra, for which Bartók composed this work. And, of course, the project was led by Eivind who continues to carry the composer’s “musical legacy”.

But practicalities aside, Veronika believes the very spirit of the composer is infused into their recording. Like his contemporary Zoltán Kodály, Bartók’s approach was that “music belongs to everyone”, Veronika shares.

“So what could be better than a perfectly sized orchestra with members from different backgrounds, performing his music at the other end of the world in beautiful Tasmania – with a conductor and producer from Norway, exactly on the opposite side of the globe?” she says.

“A brilliant Tasmanian filmmaker Joe Shemesh is providing stunning shots of the island to accompany the project. Bartók loved nature, walked a lot, and would have admired Tasmania’s beauty. Isn’t this a winning combination?”

A COMPOSER KNOWN FOR "TRUTH, HONESTY, EQUALITY"

If you think it sounds as though Veronika is speaking from the heart, you’d be right: she was practically raised on the music of Bartók. Every time she hears it, she feels “at home, meeting with people speaking my language”.

Long before establishing her career in Tasmania, Veronika had studied in Hungary and the prevalence of Bartók’s compositions in her education “created a life-long addiction” among her and her musical classmates.

“Knowing the story of his life, we had a deep respect for his brave stance for truth, honesty, equality, and silent-but-strong resistance against the injustices of the political scene of the times – especially after the 1930s.”

Veronika refers to a period in the composer’s life when he took a stand against fascism, turning down concert opportunities and cutting ties with his publisher in Nazi Germany. In 1940, Bartók left his homeland to spend his final years in exile in the United States. (He composed his Divertimento for String Orchestra just before he left his country.)

Bartók also demanded that none of Hungary’s public spaces should be named after him while others were simultaneously named after Hitler and Mussolini – a bold stance at the time, and one that would only add to his legacy: his portrait would later be placed on Hungarian banknotes, and Veronika highlights that today “most of the Hungarian cities, towns, villages have public spaces named after him”, from concert halls to streets and schools in his honour.

“I used to walk on Bartók Street in my hometown every day,” she says.

"SYNERGY OF THE HEART AND MIND"

As Bartók’s music has embedded itself in the spirit of his country, its people and culture have also inspired his works. Eivind explained in TSO Weekly Wrap (April 21, 2023) that the composer was greatly influenced by folk music.

“He collected folk music in Hungary and Romania, and his own music is so connected to this traditional music,” Eivind noted, commenting on the dances and colourful tunes that can be found in his pieces – including those featuring in the new TSO recordings.

Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta – for which Bartók is perhaps most famously known – features imitations of traditional instruments and a folk-like dance in its final movement. His Divertimento for String Orchestra boasts a gypsy feel. But this folk-inspired music is far from simple, and TSO players like William say “Bartók’s writing for string sections is technically very challenging – but never awkward or clumsy”.

“For me, Bartók creates such a diverse palette of colours and moods with his music, but there's a temptation to dwell on the darker colours and more serious moods,” William shares.

“Finding the joy and even frivolity that he weaves into his works can be tricky when you're navigating its technical challenges with a slightly furrowed brow and intense concentration.”

William has tackled plenty of complex pieces of music in his career, having performed in live concerts and broadcasts with major Australian orchestras as well as studying music in Europe. Still, he has admired Bartók’s music ever since he was a teenager.

“Bartók was a master composer. His works are both cerebral and instinctive, grounded in folk tradition and created with the highest craft,” William says.

“Throughout all of Bartók’s music, his synergy of the heart and the mind place him in the company of the truly great composers.”

William believes these new recordings may “reinforce and enhance that reputation” for which musicians of the TSO are internationally renowned.

“For everyone who already knows these works, I hope a Tasmanian recording will pique their interest. As for those who don't, I envy them the experience of discovering them for the first time,” William says.

He adds: “I have reason to hope it will be the best recording I've played in with the TSO, and I trust many other music lovers will join me in finding out.”