Howard Smith logo.


The story of Bartok's Viola Concerto - Article "THE PRESS", Christchurch, New Zealand, August 22, 2001.

The New Zealand Symphony Orchestra could face a $500,000 copyright lawsuit if it releases a recording of Bartok's final work, a viola concerto, reports say. HOWARD SMITH tells the story of this problematic composition.

IN JUNE 1944 violist William Primrose commissioned a viola concerto from Bela Bartok, and by August the work was ready in draft.

Within a few weeks the orchestration would have been finished, but Bartok was terminally ill. He worked assiduously in hospital, but died with the concerto incomplete.

During the intervening 56 years, the story of Bartok's Viola Concerto has developed like a work of fiction, and today three completed versions are in circulation, each one claiming to mirror the composer's intentions.

Hungarian violist Csaba Erdelyi was in New Zealand in July this year to record his own edition of the viola concerto with the NZSO and conductor Marc Taddei. This version is banned throughout the northern hemisphere, although widely regarded as the truest summation of Bartok's original.

The roots of this mysterious work lie in post-war New York. After Bartok's death, his widow, Ditta, and son, Peter, hurried to complete the work. They called upon Tibor Serly, then regarded as the foremost Hungarian composer in America. William Primrose rescued the Bartok/Serly orchestration, using his private letters from the composer to claim the rights. This was first performed in Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra (today's Minnesota Orchestra) with Primrose as soloist, on December 2, 1949.

Bartok scholars have since noted that Serly departed appreciably from the composer's true dictates. Over 200 notes were changed in pitched. In addition there were adaptations made to suit William Primrose's style. Mysteriously, the original manuscript was spirited away. Those who looked for Bartok's final notes were greeted with a wall of silence which lasted for 28 years, until Tibor Serly died in 1978.

Evidence suggests that Peter Bartok kept his father's work hidden in a shoebox for almost three decades. In any case, the manuscript reappeared. One copy, went to the Bartok Archive in Budapest, and the other to the Primrose Room at Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah.

Enter Csaba Erdelyi. Having been steeped in the ongoing Bartok tradition flourishing in Budapest, he also realised that Serly's orchestration deviated significantly from Bartok's wishes. Erdelyi resolved to set this to rights, but legal restrictions on further change were put in place by Peter Bartok.

At present there are two fully copyrighted versions, No.1 is that first Bartok/Serly Concerto (1950), orchestrated in a true Hungarian idiom while departing from Bela Bartok's own draft.

From the outset this score, published by Boosey & Hawkes, enjoyed the blessing of Peter Bartok. Yet controversy over the work persisted, and four decades later a second revision in 1995 came from the joint efforts of Peter Bartok and little-known composer and producer Nelson Dellamaggiore.

Both men repeatedly declined scholarly consultation on problematic sections of the work before publication. So the 1995 version resolves none of the questions which have plagued the work since Bartok's death.

Erdelyi sought the advice of world-renowned scholars Elliott Antokoletz and Laszlo Somfai. In addition he discussed Bartok's intentions with many others, among them Yehudi Menuhin and Zoltan Szekely.

Amazingly, despite this weight of authority, his reworking became a forbidden version, and was not for sale in any country. In spite of the barrage of opposition, Erdelyi , the Budapest Philharmonic, and conductor Erich Bergel performed the concerto at Budapest Opera House in 1992. It was greeted with relief and acclaim.

After nine years the work had a second performance. This came at the 29th International Viola Congress in Wellington in April this year. Viola authorities from around the globe were at the Michael Fowler Centre to hear Erdelyi play the concerto with the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra and Taddei.

Csaba Erdelyi has cast the Bartok Viola Concerto in an authoritative and compelling light in the CD with the NZSO recorded in July.

Howard Smith 2001.

NZ COPYRIGHT: Copyright in the New Zealand lapses after 50 years but works are protected for 75 years in the US. Bartok's son has threatened the lawsuit against anyone recording the work without permission. But legal advice in New Zealand says it is safe to release the recording, providing it is sold only in New Zealand and Australian stores or over the Internet.