Bartók and Székely

For many years the world knew only this second violin concerto by Bartók, but when he came to write it in the late 1930s he already had one youthful effort behind him, written for his early love, Stefi Geyer. She never played the first concerto and it did not become known until after her death in 1956, but it gave Bartók a good idea of how a solo violin fitted with an orchestra.

Then in 1928 the composer wrote his two Rhapsodies for violin and piano, which he arranged for orchestra the following year. One of his many violinist friends, the great virtuoso Zoltán Székely who premiered both versions of the Second Rhapsody, had long hoped for a concerto and in 1936 again proposed one. Bartók started studying the concertos by Weill, Szymanowski and Berg but really wanted to write a large work in variation form, while Székely wished for a normal concerto.

In the end both got what they wanted, as the concerto Bartók composed in 1937–38 is actually a set of variations, framed by two movements that are variants of each other. In 1937 Székely, who was then based in The Netherlands, took over leadership of the New Hungarian Quartet. Bartók was worried that this time-consuming job would prevent him from giving the proposed concerto its full quota of performances, but Székely promised to set time aside each year for solo work; he was therefore available to premiere the Second Concerto in Amsterdam on March 23, 1939, with the Concertgebouw Orkest under Willem Mengelberg. The radio recording of the premiere is in excellent sound and both soloist and orchestra play superbly.

Székely was given three years’ exclusive rights to the work, but after the onset of World War II and the invasion of The Netherlands by Germany, he was trapped there for the duration of hostilities, along with his quartet colleagues, suffering considerable privations. Bartók, who had emigrated to New York, wrote to Székely (in German, to pacify the Nazi censors) on 10 December 1940 informing him that he was reducing his friend’s sole rights to 13 months and the work would be available to other performers from September 1, 1941.

It fell to the splendid Ukrainian violinist Tossy Spivakovsky, then concertmaster of the Cleveland Orchestra, to give the US premiere in Cleveland early in 1943 and the first New York performance

later that year with the Philharmonic-Symphony, on both occasions with Artur Rodzinski conducting. Bartók was at the Carnegie Hall performance.

  • Béla Bartók, The Tully Potter Collection
  • Zoltán Székely, The Tully Potter Collection
  • Bartók and Székely, The Netherlands, October 1925, Lebrecht Music & Arts

Britons first heard the concerto in a broadcast from Bedford on September 20, 1944, with Yehudi Menuhin as soloist and Sir Adrian Boult conducting the BBC Symphony Orchestra.

Tully Potter