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ClassicsOnline Home » BARTOK: Mikrokosmos (Selection) / Hungarian Peasant Songs, Sz. 71
"Szokolay's playing is by turns robost, plaintive and precise"
BBC Radio Stoke
"Reviews"a must for all Ethno-classical lovers like me!"
"Want to sample Bartok's piano music? Try Balazs Szokolay's recital disc"
Béla Bartók (1881 - 1945)
The Hungarian composer Béla Bartók was born in 1881 in an
area that now forms part of Romania. His father, director of an agricultural college, was
a keen amateur musician, while it was from his mother that he received his early piano
lessons. The death of his father in 1889 led to a less settled existence, when his mother
resumed work as a teacher, eventually settling in the Slovak capital of Bratislava (the
Hungarian Pozsony), where Bartók passed his early adolescence, counting among his
school-fellows the composer Ernö Dohnányi. Offered the chance of musical training in
Vienna, like Dohnányi he chose instead Budapest, where he won a considerable reputation
as a pianist, being appointed to the teaching staff of the Academy of Music in 1907. At
the same time he developed a deep interest, shared with his compatriot Zoltan Kodaly, in
the folk-music of his own and of adjacent countries, later extended as far as Anatolia,
where he collaborated in research with the Turkish composer Adnan Saygün.
As a composer Bartók found acceptance much more difficult,
particularly in his own country, which was, in any case, beset by political troubles, when
the brief post-war left-wing government of Béla Kun was replaced by the reactionary
regime of Admiral Horthy. Meanwhile his reputation abroad grew, particularly among those
with an interest in contemporary music, and his success both as a pianist and as a
composer, coupled with dissatisfaction at the growing association between the Horthy
government and National Socialist Germany, led him in 1940 to emigrate to the United
States of America.
In his last years, after briefly holding teaching appointments
at Columbia and Harvard, Bartók suffered from increasing ill-health, and from poverty
which the conditions of exile in war-time could do nothing to alleviate. He died in
straitened circumstances in 1945, leaving a new Viola Concerto incomplete and a third
Piano Concerto more nearly finished.
The Allegro barbaro
Bartók wrote his Sonatina in 1915 and it was published in
Hungary in 1919. The work makes use of folk-tunes, presented, in general, in their most
straightforward form. The Bagpipers of the first movement, with its irregularities of
rhythm and suggestion of a drone bass, is followed by a short and heavily rhythmical Bear
Dance. The Sonatina ends with a finale of increasing excitement. The work was later
transcribed for orchestra under the title Transylvanian
Dances, a description of its musical origin. The Three Rondos on Slovak
Folk-tunes include one written in 1916, to which two more were added in 1927. Once again
the original material of the first rondo is presented more or less as transcribed, while
the later two rondos make much freer use of the original material. The composer admitted
to a pupil some difficulty in composing the second rondo, in which he had wanted to
include a third theme, but this proved impracticable.
Mikrokosmos is a remarkable collection of pieces, forming a
coherent introduction to the kind of piano technique necessary for performance of
contemporary music, starting from the simplest beginning and leading to the concert pieces
of the sixth and final volume. The first two books, written in 1926, were dedicated to
Bartók's second son, Peter. By 1937 the collection, still unpublished, included 153
pieces, some of which the composer was including in his own recitals, as he did in the
last concert he gave in Hungary in October 1940 and the first he gave in the United States
after his emigration.
The first book of Mikrokosmos includes 36 short pieces, without
thumb-crossing, and this elementary technique is continued in the thirty pieces of the
second book, which opens with a short piece in the Lydian mode. No.40 is described as in
Yugoslav mode, and No.50 as a Minuet. The third volume contains a further thirty pieces.
No.73 is an exercise in sixths and triads, No.82 a Scherzo and No.87 Variations. The 25
pieces of the fourth book, which now involves thumb-crossing, include No.100, in the style
of a folksong, Nos. 113 and 115, examples of asymmetrical Bulgarian rhythm, No.116 a
Hungarian melody and No.120 a melody in the mixolydian mode. In the fifth volume there are
eighteen pieces, of greater length and complexity. The first piece, No.122, is a chordal
study and No.126 an exercise in changes of time. No.128, a Peasant Dance, is followed by the alternating thirds
of No.129 and the varied touch called for in the Lydian mode Village Joke, No.130. Varied
touch is demanded again in the fourths of No.131, while No.133 offers syncopation and
No.135 the rapidity of a Perpetuum Mobile.
The sixth volume of Mikrokosmos contains only thirteen pieces,
starting with the free variations of No.140, involving considerable complexity of rhythm.
No.144 is a study in the most discordant intervals, the minor second and major seventh.
No.146 an Ostinato, with a repeated bass pattern of Oriental suggestion, is followed by a
March, No.147, of primitive character. The book ends with Six Dances in Bulgarian Rhythm, testimony to
Bartók's command of thematic material of popular origin, set off by his own idiomatic
harmonic and textural treatment, which gives the traditional melodies a new energy.
The Hungarian pianist Balázs Szokolay was born in Budapest in
1961, the son of a mother who is a pianist and a father who is a composer and professor at
the Ferenc Liszt Academy. He started learning the piano when he was five and in 1970
entered the preparatory class of the Budapest Music Academy, where he completed his
studies with Pál Kadosa and Zoltán Kocsis in 1983. He later spent two years at the
Academy of Music in Munich, with a German government scholarship.
Balázs Szokolay made an early international appearance with
Peter Nagy at the Salzburg Interforum in 1979, and in 1983 substituted for Nikita Magaloff
in Belgrade in a performance of the Piano Concerto No.1 of Brahms. He is now a soloist
with the Hungarian State Orchestra and has given concerts in a number of countries abroad,
including Austria, Switzerland, France, Italy, Poland, the former Soviet Union, Bulgaria
and Czecho-Slovakia. In September, 1987, he made his recital debut at the Royal Festival
Hall in London. He has won a number of important prizes at home and abroad, including,
most recently, success in the 1987 Queen Elisabeth of the Belgians Competition. He took
fourth place in the Leeds International Piano Competition in 1990, when his playing was
particularly commended in the British press for its energy and imagination.
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