Bartok, Bela: Sz. 111 ‘Contrasts’

In the summer of 1938, lunching on the Riviera with Benny Goodman at the Pagani Restaurant, the violinist Josef Szigeti had what he called a “brainwave”: he suggested that Goodman commission a piece from his friend BELA BARTOK for the three of them to play. Benny agreed. It was to be a piece in the Hungarian style, and short enough to fit on one side of a 78, as Szigeti wrote to Bartok:

So please write to Benny Goodman… a registered letter in which you agree to write within a given time a 6-7 minute clarinet-violin duo with piano accompaniment…. If possible, it woule be very good if the piece were to consist of two independent sections, … and of course we hope it will include a brilliant clarinet and violin cadenza! In any case I can safely say that Benny brings out from the instrument whatever the clarinet is physically able to perform at all, and quite wonderfully – in regions MUCH higher than the high note in [Strauss’] Eulenspiegel!

Bartok delivered the piece quickly, finishing it on September 24, 1938. Not only was it too long, however, (weighing in at eleven minutes), but he had written, in private if not in secret, a slow middle movement. Bartok wrote back to Szigeti: “Salesmen usually deliver less than what is expected from them. But there are exceptions, though I know people are not likely to be pleased with the contractor’s largesse if he delivers a suit for an adult instead of the dress ordered for a two-year-old baby.”

As Szigeti requested, the piece does contain brilliant cadenzas: one each for vioin and clarinet. Additionally, the piece does call for some unusual techniques from the fiddle. The extra violin on stage is specially tuned for the raucous opening of the third movement. Sometimes out-of-tune just sounds best.

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