Dominion Post August 2002 - Wellington, New Zealand.

Life work of note

Hungarian musician Csaba Erdelyi has finished what his fellow countryman Bela Bartok started . He talks to Nick Barnett about the journey of Viola Concerto.

Hungarian musician Csaba Erdelyi’s life work is about to reach fruition , thanks to some Kiwi supporters as well as this country’s copyright law . Whether the result is acclaim or criticism , plenty of attention is guaranteed for Erdelyi and the New Zealand connection .

It’s been a stressful year for Erdelyi , a viola player and teacher now based in Indiana . A year ago he was in Wellington for a recording session with the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra and conductor Marc Taddei . At the centre of the session was the Viola Concerto by Erdelyi’s fellow countryman Bela Bartok .

The words “viola” and “Bartok” might not stir excitement in the hearts of most people , But that rushed two-day recording session , at Wellington Town Hall , was a world first . The resulting cd , besides being a potential international showcase for the orchestra , is likely to be a very big deal in the world’s classical music scene. With the CD’s release this month , musical experts and critics will have their first chance to hear a piece that’s been the subject of debate for years .

The interest emerges from the fact that the piece is not entirely Bartok’s ; it’s Erdelyi’s fleshing out of a work that Bartok started but never finished . When he died in 1945 , Bartok had completed only a 14-page manuscript with the solo part intact but the details of orchestration left sketchy at best . His friend and compatriot Tibor Serly worked on a fully orchestrated “completion” of the piece , which he finished in 1949 . Just after that , the original manuscript disappeared from view .

Erdelyi , who grew up immersed in Bartok’s music – “it’s my native tongue” – got to know Serly’s version of the concerto well . It was that piece which in 1972 won Erdelyi first prize in the prestigious Carl Flesch Violin Competition , the first and last time a viola player won .

But, says Erdelyi , there was always something unsatisfying about Serly’s completion . It had a reputation for being “not a genuine work” by Bartok . 

In the late 1970s , the Bartok manuscript re-emerged , Erdelyi saw a photocopy of it and realised immediately that what Bartok had set down on paper didn’t match what violists had been playing for years in the Serly version .

Erdelyi changed his own performances to match Bartok’s intentions , but “looking at the details , I realised it was going to be long years to clean it up properly” . In 1989 , Erdelyi felt confident enough to produce a piano “reduction” of his expanded score , and got Bartok specialists to proof-read it for errors . He also wrote “a polite Hungarian letter” to Bartok’s son , Peter , who controls the composer’s estate , seeking support for his attempt to come up with a new completion of the work . The conflict started there .

“Peter Bartok wrote back a thunderous letter in English saying that you you have infringed copyright and if you don’t surrender all that you have done I’m going to sue you for hundreds of thousands of dollars in damages” .

Letters between Erdelyi and Peter Bartok continued for years , Erdelyi says , but there has been no legal action . 

The younger Bartok himself undertook a completion of his father’s work , aided by a composer friend . This version had it’s debut in 1995 and the orchestration , says Erdelyi , sounds more at times like Puccini or Mahler than Bartok . So there were now two versions of the concerto , but professionals didn’t want to play either of them , says Erdelyi .

He gave a “kind of world premiere” of his own completion in 1992 , but few would ever hear the piece , given the 75-year copyright rule that applied in most of the world , preventing the performance or recording of any other version without clearance from Bartok’s estate .

Then came the Kiwi connection . An international viola congress was held in Wellington last year , and a leading organiser was Wellington player and scholar Donald Maurice , a specialist in Bartok’s concerto and writer of a book on the piece that’s due to be published next year . Maurice invited Erdelyi to give a rare performance of his completion of the concerto , with Taddei as conductor .

There were talks with the then chief executive of the NZSO , Ian Fraser , and Concordance label producer John Button , who is also a reviewer with The Dominion . Post . They struck a deal to record the 23-minute piece . It was crucial to the project that New Zealand and Australia differed from common world practice in having a period of 50 years rather than 75 years before copyright on a piece of music runs out and the piece enters the public domain .

What this means , says Erdelyi , is that though the CD cannot be sold in shops in North America and Europe till 2024 , it can be advertised and sold over the Internet and distributed to libraries overseas . New Zealand buyers can , of course , buy the CD in local shops .

After the recording last year , says Erdelyi , “it was very difficult as the engineer was in New Zealand and I was in Indianapolis . There are many details that we needed to put right.” 

The recording had to be polished with care , given the conflicting views that exist about the concerto . Critics , scholars and players around the world will take the recording to pieces and scrutinise it , says Erdelyi . “That’s why we were so slow , so we can’t be attacked” , he says . “I’ve done my best.”


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