scorecardresearch Skip to main content

Bartók’s music of life and death, at the Gardner Museum

On Sunday, the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, having recently offered concerts pairing the music of Bela Bartók with that of Robert Schumann, kicks off another series of blind dates: pianist Paavali Jumppanen and violinist Corey Cerovsek surrounding Pierre Boulez’s three piano sonatas with works by Claude Debussy and Bartók. It is, on the one hand, canny ancestry, locating two possible genetic sources of Boulez’s elegantly aggressive sound world. But it is also a contrast. Boulez’s mercurial intensity seems to push through to new worlds; Bartók’s music generates heat from the friction of traveling through this one.

The Sunday concert features Bartók’s 1944 Sonata for Solo Violin, one of his last works, composed in the shadow of the two great concerns of Bartók’s late life: immigration and health care. A committed anti-fascist, Bartók reluctantly left his native Hungary for the United States in 1940. Bartók had reason to be ambivalent about his new home. There was much less interest in his music than there had been in Europe; opportunities for concertizing (his main source of income) were few. At the same time, his health began to fail, with a diagnosis — leukemia — finally coming in 1944.


Bartók’s high reputation among his fellow musicians helped in his last years. Serge Koussevitzky, conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, commissioned from Bartók his Concerto for Orchestra, which proved to be one of the composer’s (and the BSO’s) greatest successes. The American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP) underwrote Bartók’s medical bills, an extraordinary gesture of respect to a composer who was not a member. The sonata was commissioned by another illustrious admirer, Yehudi Menuhin, and was written in Asheville, N.C., an ASCAP-funded sojourn taken in hopes of improving Bartók’s health.

Belying his illness, Bartók’s sonata — which seems to filter the solo sonatas of J.S. Bach through dense Hungarian grit — is challenging and robust, containing, in its heavy, relentless fugue, some of Bartók’s most aggressive music, and, in its slow movement, some of his most lyrical. The high-speed finale pushes into experimental territory, scurrying in conspiratorial quarter-tones (Bartók gave Menuhin permission to change them to more conventional half-steps, an alteration that made it into what, for many years, was the only published edition, but performers have increasingly returned to the original). Maybe it was something more than experiment: Hovering between exile and settlement, prestige and prosperity, life and death, Bartók might well have made his music arrestingly interstitial.


Paavali Jumppanen and Corey Cerovsek play Bartók, Boulez, and Debussy, Feb. 19, 1:30 p.m., at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. Tickets $28-$36. 617-278-5156,

Matthew Guerrieri

Matthew Guerrieri can be reached at