Béla Bartók (1881-1945)
Piano Music, Volume 2
Béla Bartók was born on 25th March, 1881, in the town of Nagyszentmiklós, now in Romania. He studied piano and composition with László Erkel in Pozsony, the modern Bratislava, where contact with his older contemporary Ernö Dohnányi proved decisive in his development. The successful première in 1904 of his symphonic poem Kossuth was an indication of his nationalist leanings, but it was not until he embarked on expeditions to collect folk-music, initially in collaboration with Zoltán Kodály, that his ideal of a stylistic fusion between traditional and created forms of music began to take hold.
The pre-war years were difficult ones for Bartók, caught between Austro-German conformity and insular Hungarian nationalism. Not until 1917-18, with the successful premières of his stage works The Wooden Prince and Duke Bluebeard’s Castle, was he established as a leading composer in the soon-to-be-independent Hungary, only for his subsequent pantomime, The Miraculous Mandarin, to be rejected on account of its sexually explicit scenario. During the 1920s and 1930s, Bartók consolidated his reputation with frequent performances in Western Europe, notably through the International Society for Contemporary Music, while his career as a concert pianist took him to North America. It was to the United States that he emigrated in 1940, having previously banned performances of his music in Hungary, in protest at the government’s increasingly fascist orientation. Ill health and financial worries dogged Bartók’s remaining years, but the works he did complete, including the Concerto for Orchestra and Third Piano Concerto, show a new directness which assured them of an immediate place in the repertoire. He died of leukaemia in New York on 26th September, 1945.
Although the six string quartets (1909-39) and series of orchestral works written in the 1930s and 1940s constitute the highpoint of Bartók’s creative achievement, his substantial output of piano music covers almost the whole of his career, from the juvenilia of the 1890s, in which procedures derived from Liszt and Brahms are absorbed and rejected, to the mature works of the mid-1920s, and culminating with the encyclopaedic six-volume manual in keyboard prowess, Mikrokosmos (1939).
Written in 1923 to celebrate the union of the cities of Buda and Pest into the present-day Hungarian capital, the Dance Suite immediately established itself as among the most popular of Bartók’s works. Two years later, Emil Hertzka, director of the Viennese publisher Universal Edition, suggested that the composer make a ‘not too difficult’ piano arrangement. The resulting transcription, however, yields little in technical requirement to his original piano works. Interestingly, Bartók never included it in a recital, György Sándor giving the public première as late as March 1945.
Although through-composed, the Dance Suite divides into six sections, linked by a ritornello of wistful Hungarian character. The increasingly animated first dance and impetuous second dance are also of Magyar origin, while the energetic third dance draws on Romanian traditional music from the region of Wallachia. The sensuous fourth dance has a pronounced Arabic inflection, in contrast with the primitive peasant archetype of the fifth dance. The finale draws together thematic and rhythmic characteristics of the preceding dances, in an exhilarating synthesis which aptly reflects what Bartók described as "... the brotherhood of peoples ... in spite of all wars and conflicts".
The Slovakian Dance was originally intended as part of the Dance Suite, forming a third movement, placed between the present second and third movements. It has been suggested that this scherzo-type movement was omitted by the composer in accordance with his known mathematical principles, since its inclusion would have disturbed the proportions of the whole Suite, based seemingly on the golden section. The Slovakian Dance remained a sketch, unorchestrated and on two staves, and needed slight adjustments for the present piano version by the composer’s son, Peter Bartók, published in 1999.
With the Improvisations on Hungarian Peasant Songs, written in 1920, that boundary no longer exists. Interestingly, this was the last work to which Bartók gave an opus number, Opus 20, confirming that henceforth his ‘art’ and folk-derived compositions were to enjoy equal status. As he pointed out, "... the used folk melody is to be regarded only as a motto, on which an ... independent music has been created". Moreover, the abrasive harmonic language of the Improvisations looks back to the pantomime The Miraculous Mandarin and forward to the two violin sonatas. The first opens the set in poignant restraint, the second is disruptive and mercurial, while the third evolves into a slow movement of ominous import. The fourth contrasts with its dancing, scherzo character, intensified in the headlong motion of the fifth, and the sixth abounds in humorous syncopation and rhythmic dislocation. The seventh might be described as a rhetorical lullaby, and was Bartók’s contribution to the Debussy memorial supplement of La Revue musicale, published in December 1920. The eighth concludes the set with a bracing dance movement of varied dynamic contrasts.
In 1931 Bartók completed his 44 Duos for Two Violins, an encyclopaedic survey of technique that has long had pedagogical as well as performance value. Five years later, he arranged six of the duos for solo piano as his Petite Suite, the numbers of the originals are given in brackets. Lassú (Slow Tune) (28) is an emotional outpouring over a sometimes walking bass. Máramarosi tánc (Wallachian Dance) (32) and Forgatós (Whirling Dance) (38) increase the rhythmic animation, while Pengetös (Quasi Pizzicato) (43) ingeniously transcribes an idiomatic string technique into keyboard terms. Oroszos (Ruthenian Dance) (16) is the nearest to a straight transcription, then Dudás (Bagpipes) (36) combines two types of rhythmic motion to make an incisive finale.
The three remaining works on this disc are ‘creative transcriptions’, all made in 1915, ostensibly as a continuation of the simplified piano method adopted in the four-volume cycle For Children, compiled six years earlier. Six varied miniatures comprise the Romanian Folkdances, opening with the loping Bot tánc (Stick Dance), continuing with the elegant Brâul (Sash Dance) and limpidly expressive Topogó / Pe loc (In One Spot). Bucsumí tánc (Horn Dance) has a ruminative, pastoral quality, in contrast with the animated Román polka (Romanian Polka) and its dashing continuation in the concluding Aprózó (Fast Dance).
The Sonatina draws its Romanian sources into a miniature sonata of poise and vivacity. The skirling rhythmic motion and harmonic pungency of Dudások (Bagpipers) is followed by the brusque manner of Medvetánc (Bear Dance), before the scintillating Finale rounds off the work with its deceptive formal simplicity.
The Romanian Christmas Carols are based around the Colinda, a ceremonial song traditionally sung in Romanian villages by groups of children, often with unexpected changes in metre to counter the prevailing strict tempo. Bartók’s set is divided into two series each of ten pieces, notable for the striking accompaniments that enrich these age-old melodies.
ReviewsThis is a fascinating release, filled with piano music that bears the stamp of Bartok's engagement with Eastern European folk music... Jeno Jando, Naxos's 'house pianist,' performs everything with an emphasis on lucidity and a big, beautiful sound...[and] textural clarity... Highly recommended. - David Weininger, The Boston Phoenix, March 2002