The National Philharmonic Orchestra performs Bartók's Twenty Hungarian Folk Songs in a transcription by Zoltán Kocsis.
On Thursday, the National Philharmonic Orchestra will perform Bartók's Twenty Hungarian Folk Songs, conducted by Zoltán Kocsis who has also orchestrated some of them. Two questions immediately strike the average music lover: what is this work? And why does it have to be rewritten? We put these questions to the one most able to answer them. When His Master's Voice record company came to Hungary in 1928, they recorded several dozen records of material at the Múzeum Körút studios. The majority of recordings were Kodály's folk song settings. It is possible that Bartók wanted to prove that he could do the same as Kodály, or perhaps in an even more Bartókian manner, and this emotion triggered the writing of the Twenty Hungarian Folk Songs.
Given its importance in Bartók's oeuvre, why isn't it performed more often?
Firstly, who in the world can sing Hungarian? Also, who wants to sing when the accompaniment is so full of complex harmonies that it virtually disturbs them? – responds Zoltán Kocsis – I remember when we once performed the original version of the work in the countryside, after the concert, at a reception, they asked me why Bartók had to ruin these beautiful folksongs with his piano accompaniment!
Perhaps Kodály and Bartók settled this among themselves. Kodály set folk songs, giving them beautiful, illustrative accompaniments, which are sometimes simple, other times more complex, but always congenial. Bartók on the other hand writes a Bartók work, in which the folk song happens to provide either an essential element, an inspiring factor or sometimes, just a pretext. The accompaniment to these works sometimes resembles the Fourth Quartet, sometimes the First Piano Concerto, which immediately answers your question why they are not played. An opera rehearsal pianist would find the piano accompaniment too difficult, while a concert pianist would rather devote the effort required to mastering a piano concerto. And if they do decide to learn the piano part, where do they find a vocalist? Does a singer have the time to devote half a year to learning these songs? So it is no surprise that they are not performed, but it is a shock considering they are of a similar quality to other Bartók works in different genres, such as the piano concertos and string quartets.
Is it worthwhile orchestrating such a rarely heard work?
It is worthwhile because Bartók himself reworked five of the twenty songs for small symphonic ensemble. But I sense in his orchestration that if the orchestra had been bigger, then he would have orchestrated all of them. At the time though, he had to work on the Fifth String Quartet, the Music for Strings, Percussion and Celeste, and the Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion. But I was not constrained by either opportunity or time, and I completed the missing fifteen songs in about half a year. I didn't think for a moment to rework them for the small scale orchestra that Bartók preferred.
So why did you not rewrite the five song that have already been orchestrated, so at least, the sonority would be unified?
Because I couldn't do it better, and I don't think after the premiere, anyone would say that I could have done them better.
Can the singers cope standing in front of such a large orchestra and chorus?
Look at, for example, the scores of Richard Strauss, or at Schoenberg's Gurre Lieder, where a single voice is simply one part from among 32 on the score. Or we can mention Wagner, who did not pay attention to the singers as such. If the character of the music is such, then the biggest, most extreme solutions of orchestration become justified, and problems can be solved with a little goodwill on behalf of the conductor.
But the words cannot be understood.
Understanding the text is not an orchestral question. There are some who will not agree with the enunciation of texts, even if they are supported by a very transparent orchestration. This is a factor of singing technique. Additionally, when I listen to the phonograph field recordings that Bartók collected, it turns out that folk singers didn't seem to regard it important to make the text understandable.
Isn't there another argument against orchestration, which is that that the piano accompaniment in itself is very expressive.
What is for certain is that when my transcriptions are put on a concert programme and afterwards are compared with my piano playing, general my piano playing wins. If they say I play the piano better than I orchestrate, then I reply that there is another reason why it occurred to me to orchestrate: that the piano is not enough for the work. If only for two notes, but an orchestration has to mean something extra.
What is the continuation? You have no permission from the Bartók estate to publish or record it.
My only goal is to make the Twenty Hungarian Folk Songs better known in the world. Among pianists, singers and audiences.
But for that they need the scores too.
Isn't the performance more important? Suppose that a beautiful manuscript is published. How many people will buy it? If someone buys it, will they study it or just put it on the shelf? If we perform it, then at least people enjoy an acoustic experience. And this experience sometimes moves the matter on. This music is unbelievably strong. At least as good as the Fourth Quartet or the Rhapsodies. For me, it is a more powerful work than the Cantata Profana. We want to guarantee a higher rank in the hierarchy for this work.
But for which one? The original or the orchestration?
Doesn't matter. For the work itself.
Aren't you exaggerating when you say you worked on it for half a year?
Sometimes I think that I have actually dealt with this work far more than Bartók himself, for whom this must have been about one month's work. This is how much time I needed. If this is how much the work grabbed me, then I don't regret this half year. I wouldn't have begrudged it if I had taken a year. I did something more important than if I had learned the Schumann Humoresque, and placed myself at number eighty nine of those who perform the Humoresque reasonably well.
Aren't you accused using the orchestra to live out your desires as a composer? Because as the General Music Director, you decide what will be in the program and of course, you decide to program your own works.
It's true that writing transcriptions is a substitute activity. There's no question. But from the point of view of the orchestra, what should we do? Play the Suite no. 1, which is far less representative of Bartók, from which there is far less to learn? Rather let's do something which the orchestra experiences as virgin material, it is not burdened by tradition or pseudo-tradition, it is something they can work with more creatively. What can I say with a work weighed down by tradition to the third trombone, to stimulate his interest? Isn't it better to present something new? I don't programme it to be praised, but to stimulate members of the orchestra with something which has a long term return if, in two years later, we take up a work in a similar genre. I plan for the long term.