The music of Bela Bartok belongs to the world now, transcending time and geography. Universally performed, it needs no special advocacy. So when it’s offered as part of a festival honoring Liszt, who, in the final analysis, was his inferior, the tie-in seems pointless. To be sure, Liszt’s influence can be seen in Bartok’s early works, and the younger composer attended the Franz Liszt Academy of Music in Budapest, as did all nine performers at the Library of Congress’s all-Bartok concert Tuesday evening. But the program of mostly familiar chamber music offered scant reason to enfold it into the library’s ongoing Liszt Bicentenary Project. It was a little like giving an all-Prokofiev concert in the middle of a Tchaikovsky festival simply because both were Russian and good with melodies.
In any case, what was most thought-provoking about the program was not where Bartok came from, but where he went. The early piano quintet, academic and unmemorable, gives way to the enduring power and life force he subsequently found in indigenous Eastern European folk music. The instrumental virtuosity and tight construction of “Contrasts” (violin, clarinet, piano), the charm and wit in “Duos” (two violins) and the earthy rhythms of “Rhapsody No. 1” (violin and piano) all grow out of the same peasant soil but are now lit from above by genius. The Hungarian artists (the members of the Budapest Festival Orchestra in town this week) displayed the deepest familiarity and reverence for their greatest composer, with marvelously idiomatic delivery of the asymmetrical rhythms and trochaic phrases. It must be said that tonal beauty was not the instrumentalists’ strong suit, but guest pianist Jeno Jando presided over the principal works with unflappable command.