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By Pierre-E. Barbier
Béla Bartók (1881-1945): Piano Music Volume 1
Béla Bartók was born on 25th March, 1881, in the town of Nagyszentmiklós (now in Romania). He studied the piano and composition with László Erkel in Pozsony (now Bratislava), where contact with his older contemporary Ernö Dohnányi proved a decisive factor in his development. The successful première in 1904 of his symphonic poem Kossuth indicated 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 explicit scenario. During the 1920s and 1930s, Bartók consolidated his reputation with frequent performances in Western Europe, notably at festivals of 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 increasingly fascistic orientation of the military government. 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 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 the 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, culminating with the encyclopaedic six-volume manual in keyboard prowess, Mikrokosmos (1939).
The year 1926 was a decisive one for Bartók. About to embark on a career as an international concert pianist, and having written nothing of significance since the Dance Suite three years earlier, he turned his attention to composing piano music which would define his current musical thinking to the outside world. The Piano Sonata and the suite Out of Doors evolved in tandem, rejected passages from the former finding their way into the latter.
As completed, the Sonata represents a paradigm of the new classicism that Bartók had been working towards during the first half of the 1920s, with particular stimulus drawn from the such Baroque keyboard masters as Scarlatti and Frescobaldi. The incisive opening Allegro moderato confirms this lithe, astringent approach to piano-writing. While there are contrasting themes in the classical sense, they do not so much develop in contrast to each other, as develop in succession out of each other; continuity being provided by the quaver rhythmic motion which remains constant across the whole movement. The Sostenuto e pesante is in a clear-cut ternary form, the initial repeated note patterns forming the basis of the plaintive, folk-inflected melody, which emerges in a stepwise motion to project forcefully in the central portion of the movement, before contracting in an altered reprise of the opening section. The abrupt ending sets up the Allegro molto finale, an ingenious conflation of rondo and variation forms where the main theme recurs as a varied refrain, while in between come episodes of contrasting national character. The whole work is confirmation of the degree to which composer and transcriber are now as one.
Composed in 1916, the Suite is one of the works Bartók wrote during his period of 'internal exile' in Hungary. Alienated from the strident nationalism of the independence movement and its disdain for artistic modernism, he was also undergoing a personal crisis that would see the breakdown of his first marriage soon after. Little of this soul-searching is reflected directly in the Suite, though its format evidently caused the composer some trouble; the chaste and ruminative Andante [track 8] was planned and later discarded as the second movement. In its definitive form, the first three movements gradually accelerate through a robust peasant dance, anticipating those found in the Dance Suite, a skittish and mercurial scherzo, and a piece whose febrile intensity and aggression
recall the Allegro barbaro of five years earlier. The final Sostenuto follows without pause - its pensive melancholy all the more affecting for its expressive restraint.
The Seven Sketches were assembled between 1908 and 1910, part of an intensive four-year focusing on piano music which saw four other sets of pieces (published variously as Opp. 8 and 9), and culminating in the Allegro barbaro. A Debussyian harmonic quality pervades the opening Andante, while Comodo is a game with musical intervals and keyboard patterns. A restrained and harmonically elliptical Lento is followed by the most substantial piece of the set, Non troppo lento, the gentle berceuse-like opening of which belies the agitation of its closing bars. The Romanian folk inflection of the ensuing Andante offers a robust change of mood,continued in the Walachian tribute of the Allegretto, which moves as if out of earshot. The closing Poco lento returns to the Debussyianaura of the opening piece, though the closing discords have a tonal vagueness more akin to Scriabin.
From the earliest of his folk-song trips in 1905, Bartók was keen to incorporate his findings into his original compositions. This was done to varying degrees, from the straightforward transcriptions found in the four volumes of For Children (1908-09), to the indissoluble synthesis of the Hungarian Peasant Improvisations (1920). The Fifteen Hungarian Peasant Songs, written between 1914 and 1918, occupy a mid-way position, the presentation of the traditional melodies being crucial to their perception by the listener. The fifteen items are divided into four groups, of which the first four and last nine are brief but subtle settings of ethnic Hungarian songs and dances. The scherzo forming the fifth piece diverts with its deft syncopations, but its successor has a gravitas out of keeping with the remainder of the set. Marked Ballada (tema con variazioni), the theme is of a tale of betrayal and death, and the nine variations which follow chart the departure and return of the lover; the dissonances in the closing bars most likely his remorse and suicide.
Three Hungarian Folksongs from Csík arose from Bartók's first visit to the Székely Hungarians, residents of the Transylvanian mountains, during 1907. One of his recordings was of three songs played in a harmonically and rhythmically elaborated setting on flute. Having arranged them for flute and piano (his only such work for the medium), Bartók transcribed them for piano. The yearning melancholy of the opening Rubato is followed by the winsome elegance of L'istesso tempo and the rude vigour of the closing Poco vivo.
Three Rondos on Folk Tunes effectively link Bartók's earlier and mature piano writing. The opening Andante was written in 1916 and revised eleven years later, and the alternately plaintive and vigorous quality of its Slovakian source results in a piece of direct emotional appeal. The following two pieces, both written in 1927, are of the same stylistic orbit as the Piano Sonata, the brusque contrasts of the Vivacissimo complemented by the symmetries of the Allegro molto, which also introduces Bach into the overall stylistic fusion.