Béla Bartók

Music for Strings, Percussion & Celesta, Sz. 106, BB 114

    Description by Mark Satola

    Bartók wrote some of his finest music for the Swiss conductor Paul Sacher, in whom he found a particularly sympathetic champion. Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta, written for Sacher in 1936, explores with great refinement and mastery the musical concepts that Bartók had been developing since the mid-'20s. In the Piano Concerto No. 1, Bartók explored the percussive elements of the piano, coupling it effectively with percussion only in the introduction to the concerto's slow movement. In Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta, Bartók ingeniously sets the piano with the percussion instruments, where its melodic and harmonic material functions in support of the two string choirs.

    Since the early '30s, Bartók had also incorporated elements of Baroque music into his compositions, inspired partly by his exploration of pre-Classical keyboard composers such as Scarlatti, Rameau and Couperin. In reflection of this, Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta evokes the Baroque concerto grosso, with its two antiphonal string orchestras separated by a battery of tuned and untuned percussion instruments. The work's prosaic title was actually just a working title which was subsequently allowed to stand.

    The opening movement, Andante tranquillo, is a slow fugue on a chromatic melody that springs from a five-note cell, each subsequent phrase growing in length and elaborating on its predecessor. At this point, the two string orchestras play together. As the string voices accumulate, the fugue's texture increases in complexity and the chromatic implications of the theme are brought to a rigorously dissonant fulfillment. The fugue climaxes at its apogee with an ominous rumble from the timpani and a loud stroke on the tam-tam. As the fugue folds in upon itself the celesta makes its first entrance with an arpeggiated chord, mysterious and remote. The work subsequently grows from the motivic material explored in this first movement.

    Bartók deploys antiphonal string choirs for the second movement, a fast, fugitive piece in which the two orchestras chase each other through a breathtaking series of elaborations on the main theme. In the percussion section, piano, xylophone, and harp take the lead while two side drums (with and without snares) provide emphatic punctuation. The third movement is one of Bartók's most accomplished "night music" pieces, with cricket-like notes from the xylophone, eerie timpani glissandi, fragmentary murmurs, and frightened exclamations from the strings, along with the always-mysterious notes of the celesta floating clear and sphinx-like over the nocturnal weft. The finale, a dance of energy and abandon, restores the antiphonal deployment of the strings and juxtaposes the diatonic aspects of the work's main theme with its chromatic elements. There are also some striking touches like the furious, strummed four-note chords in the violins, violas and cellos that opens the movement, a theme midway through that is based on a repeated note first hammered out on piano and xylophone, and then a grand peroration of the initial fugue theme, now with its intervals doubled and richly harmonized. In the quick coda there is a brief, suspended moment ("a tempo allargando") before the work tumbles to a conclusion in unabashed A major.

    Parts/Movements

    1. Andante tranquillo
    2. Allegro
    3. Adagio
    4. Allegro molto

    Appears On

    Year Title Label Catalog #
    2016 Decca 4789311
    2016 Sony Classical / Sony Music Distribution 88875173752
    2016 Urania / Urania Records WS 121158
    2015 Praga PRD 350087
    2015 Linn / Linn Records BKD 234
    2015 RCO RCO 15002
    2015 DG Deutsche Grammophon 002894794261
    2014 Warner Classics 545053
    2014 DG Deutsche Grammophon
    2013 Chandos CHSA 5130
    2013 Urania URN 22303
    2013 Decca / Mercury 4785092
    2012 Naxos 8572486
    2012 Decca 4784577
    2012 Decca
    2012 DG Deutsche Grammophon 002894770055
    2012 Decca / Mercury Living Presence 001653302
    2012 DG Deutsche Grammophon
    2012 Decca
    2012 Entertainment Group 12106
    2011 Decca 478 275-9
    2011 Decca 4782759
    2011 EMI Classics / Warner Classics 50999094627224
    2011 Audite 21407
    2010 Universal Classics & Jazz
    2010 Decca 4782358
    2010 BD Music / Zebralution
    2010 Fazer / Finlandia
    2010 Decca
    2010 Hungaroton / Hungaroton Classics 32510
    2010 Decca
    2009 Decca 4453942
    2009 Calliope 5335
    2009 Denon Records
    2009 Denon Records
    2009 Document / Membran 231754
    2009 DG Deutsche Grammophon 001660402
    2008 Urania 340
    2008 ATMA Classique 2576
    2008 EMI Classics 09407
    2008 Membran 231668
    2008 EMI Classics / Warner Classics 5099951203
    2007 Melodiya 1001063
    2006 Philips 4756201
    2006 Haenssler 93127
    2006 Arte Nova 277600
    2006 Decca 000710902
    2006 Musiques Suisses 6240
    2005 EMI Music Distribution 76897
    2005 Mercury 4756862
    2004 Mercury 4756255
    2004 RCA Red Seal 61390
    2004 Praga PR54047
    2004 Rca Red Seal 82876 59326-2
    2004 Linn Records 234
    2004 DG Deutsche Grammophon 4636402
    2003 DG Deutsche Grammophon 000041502
    2003 Nimbus 5362
    2003 Decca 000017802
    2003 Decca
    2002 EMI Classics 75620
    2002 Jmc
    2002 JVC Compact Discs 12
    2002 Decca 470516
    2002 History 205180
    2001 Orfeo 551011
    2000 Hungaroton 41002
    2000 Teldec 8573-81965-2
    2000 Stradivarius 13591
    2000 Tahra 185-189
    2000 Urania 151
    1999 London 430352
    1999 Valois 4842
    1999 Praga 256016/19
    1998 Sony Classical SMK-60730
    1998 Finlandia 21029
    1998 EMI Music Distribution 66596
    1997 Nimbus 1771
    1997 Arte Nova 74321 27760-2
    1997 Orfeo D'Or 461971
    1997 DG Deutsche Grammophon 447443
    1996 London 448577
    1996 Sony Classical 62598
    1996 BIS 740
    1996 London 448 276-2DF2
    1996 DG Deutsche Grammophon 447 747-2GH
    1996 Mercury 434378
    1995 London 443173
    1995 Sony Music Distribution 64100
    1995 Mercury 434357
    1995 Melodiya 25197
    1995 Melodiya 25189
    1994 Praga 254047
    1994 Capriccio Records 10417
    1994 Naxos 550261
    1994 Hungaroton 12531
    1994 DG Deutsche Grammophon 437993
    1994 Hungaroton 12631
    1994 Russian Disc 11167
    1993 RCA Victor 61504
    1992 Vox 3015
    1990 EMI Music Distribution 54070
    Sony Music Distribution 47510
    As Disc 614
    Nimbus 5086
    EMI Music Distribution 65175
    Melodiya 1118
    Philips 426661
    Alto 1052
    DG Deutsche Grammophon 429747
    London 421443
    Apex 8573 88431-2
    EMI Music Distribution 747521
    Philips 125126
    London 411894
    RCA Gold Seal 60175
    Denon Records 8175790442
    EMI Music Distribution 63464
    Enterprise 917
    History 205185
    Music Express 491
    Originals 814
    EMI Classics 698555
    Arkadia 21
    Olympia (Classical/Jazz) 223