Bartók wrote his two Rhapsodies for violin and piano in 1928, a year he spent at home in Budapest after traveling much of the previous year giving piano recitals. Touring the world was naturally an eye-opening experience, and his letters show that a tour of the United States had left him duly impressed with the sheer size of the country, and with that warm weather wonder, the avocado, which he discovered in Los Angeles.
All the same, much of the music he wrote in 1928 is firmly grounded in his homeland. The First Rhapsody, which also exists in versions for violin and orchestra, and cello and piano is, like much of Bartók's music, based on Hungarian folk music, which intrigued him both as a composer and as an academic researcher who had traveled the countryside collecting tunes. The Rhapsody is full of the sounds of folk fiddling: improvisatory-sounding variations in the melodies and multiple stops of the sort that would be natural for a player creating his own harmonies as he goes along.
It consists of a Lassú and a Friss, two movements taken from the Hungarian csárdás, where they traditionally would be more or less synonymous with slow movement and fast movement. Things are seldom so simple with Bartók. His Lassú is divided into two outer sections, featuring a ponderous, throaty tune, and a more subdued middle section.
The Friss is based on a folk tune - with an uncanny resemblance to the American Shaker hymn "Simple Gifts" - which is shunted aside for a procession of other folk tunes in a series of episodes in steadily accelerating tempo, reappearing toward the end in a recapitulation as surprising as it is inevitable.
- Howard Posner