VIdeo Pick of the Week: Katalin Koltai Plays Bartók’s ‘The Night’s Music’ (and check out her single-string capo invention)

In the past, we’ve posted videos featuring Hungarian guitarist Katolin Koltai both solo (such as this performance of Ravel’s Oiseaux tristes) and with flautist Noémi Győri—together they’re the Dialogue Duo, founders of the Classical Flute and Guitar Project, which is dedicated to arranging works for that combination of instruments and has already published pieces by Mozart, Haydn, and Beethoven.

This latest video by Koltai features another of her own transcriptions for solo guitar, this one an intriguing 1926 piano piece by Hungarian composer Béla Bartók (1881–1945) called The Night’s Music, from a small collection of piano works known collectively as Out of Doors (Sz 81). Bartók is one of a number of composers who has sought to capture the feeling of “night” through music, and wrote quite a few works he categorized as such. In The Night’s Music he explicitly mimics the sounds of different nocturnal creatures, including birds, cicadas, and particular type of Hungarian frog (as well as peasant flute in one section). It’s quite modern-sounding, with irregular time intervals, some striking ostinato moments, dissonant cluster chords, and abrupt leaps across the scale—as if placing the critters in different parts of a nocturnal country sounsdcape. It is said that Bartók was intrigued by the piano’s percussive possibilities during this period; certainly The Night’s Music leans heavily in that direction.

Koltai tells us that the piece presented some unique challenges to bring it onto the guitar—she even invented a special “single-string capodaster” to be able to play the work: “This first model, which you can see in the video, was especially invented for this Bartók piece, to make the impossible 4-note cluster playable without a scordatura.

“The essence is that this is a capo for a single string, which does not block the other open strings at the position of the capo, so the whole fretboard otherwise stays open to play comfortably. The metal does not affect the feel of the string underneath it; there is a rubber padding between the string and steel, which presses the string against board and the fret. It sounds like a normal capo, or any depressed note, and does not affect the resonance differently, though sustaining the note as a pedal. The model in the Bartók piece [made from steel by goldsmith V. Varga] is designed for the 3rd and the 4th strings, but now I am working on new models, which will be adjustable.

“I see the tools I am working on now offering multiple possibilities for the language of the instrument in terms of pedals, trills, clusters, and spanning large intervals,” she says. “While the current model has been perfected for concert use in the Bartók and perhaps some other transcriptions, it does pose limitations for more pieces I have in the works. We are at work on that with my technical partners, and already well on our way to finding solutions.” She says she hopes to have a commercially available version of her “capodaster” out within the next year.

An exciting recent change in Koltai’s life is that she has moved to England to pursue a PhD at the University of Surrey International Research Centre with Stephen Goss: “It will focus on expanding the boundaries of the idiom of the classical guitar through advanced arrangements, the invention of new capodasters, and collaboration with composers. I am especially interested in transcribing 20th century piano music by Ravel, Bartók, Debussy, and György Ligeti, to name a few.” In fact, her next album project will consist of piano pieces by Ligeti, another of Hungary’s most respected composers. That should be fascinating, like everything Katalin Koltai does!—Blair Jackson

Béla_Bartók, 1927