Béla Bartók was in fragile health when he composed his Concerto for Orchestra. He had emigrated from his native Hungary to the United States. Tormented by homesickness and compositionally paralysed, he was hospitalised in 1943 with suspected tuberculosis (which turned out to be leukemia). Conductor Serge Koussevitsky – urged on by two of Bartók’s fellow Hungarian expatriates, Joseph Szigeti and Fritz Reiner – visited him in a New York hospital and requested a new work for the Boston Symphony. Koussevitsky threw the commission onto the bed sheet, plus a down payment of $500, to coax the composer into action.

Gergely Czár (Bluebeard) and Vencel Csetényi (Bartók)
© Müpa Budapest

It worked. Bartók was fired up by the commission and feverishly set to work, completing the Concerto for Orchestra in just two months at a health resort in upstate New York. It was a huge success and ranks as one of Bartók’s finest works. Intriguingly, a piano reduction of the score was found among Bartók’s manuscripts after his death, intended for a ballet version which never took place. But now, Tamás Juronics has choreographed the full orchestral work as an autobiographical ballet depicting Bartók’s battling with both illness and his inner demons to write it. 

Performed by the Szeged Contemporary Dance Company in front of the excellent Hungarian National Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Gergely Madaras, it certainly makes a vivid impression. It helps if you know the backstory to the work’s composition, as well as some of Bartók’s other scores, for the ballet opens with Vencel Csetényi as the composer, lying in his hospital bed, haunted by Bluebeard – a striking image – and the ghosts of his other stage works The Wooden Prince and The Miraculous Mandarin. Petra Bocsi appears as Ditta Pásztory, Bartók’s wife, supporting the frail composer in hold as the four couples dance.

Zsófia Liszkai (Spider)
© Müpa Budapest

Bartók inches tentatively towards an arachnoid piano, complete with eight legs, which opens up to reveal a spider who entangles him within her web of ribbons. Demons and a horned Satan drive the composer back to his bed, but he becomes entranced with a flame-haired figure (Boglárka Heim), the spirit of his homeland, who inspires him. As Bartók removes her headdress and veils, she begins an elegiac dance, sinuously sensual.

Vencel Csetényi (Bartók) and Boglárka Heim (Allegory of the Homeland)
© Müpa Budapest

Juronics has a quartet of faceless soldiers occupy the fourth movement (where Bartók blows a Soviet raspberry at Shostakovich’s Leningrad Symphony) and in the finale, figures in gas masks writhe in contortions until Bartók’s bed is raised above the orchestra, the composer conducting. Reunited with Ditta, he gathers up the sheets of music and holds his score aloft. (It was to prove a short-lived triumph – two years later, Bartók was dead.) It’s an imaginative creation and deserves a life beyond the Bartók Spring International Arts Weeks festival for which it was commissioned.

Gergely Madaras conducts the Hungarian National Philharmonic Orchestra
© Müpa Budapest

The ballet probably didn’t need to be preceded by anything, but it was good to see the Hungarian NPO not submerged in shadows, giving a tangy performance of the Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta in the excellent acoustic of Müpa’s Béla Bartók National Concert Hall. With strings divided antiphonally, three double basses on each side, cellos lined up along the rear enveloping the piano, celesta and harp, Madaras conducted a rhythmically sharp account, with plenty of fierce snap to the pizzicatos and driving percussion. The string playing was highly polished, a glossy sheen to the violins while the quick-change camera shots and extreme instrumental close-ups added to the energy even further. 

This performance was reviewed from the Bartók Spring International Arts Weeks live video stream