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CD Review

Béla Bartók

Piano Music

  • Sonata (1926)
  • Improvisations on Hungarian Peasant Songs
  • Suite, Op. 14
  • Out of Doors
  • Sonata for 2 Pianos & Percussion *
Murray Perahia, piano
* Georg Solti, piano
* David Corkhill & Evelyn Glennie, percussion
Sony 82076-78750-2 73:42
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Summary for the Busy Executive: Hold on to your hats.

One can easily name the giants of modern piano writing: Debussy, Ravel, Ives, Prokofieff, and Bartók. I would add Gershwin, J.P. Johnson, and Thelonius Monk, but I don't want anybody to roll their eyes. None of these composers write the same way, and all have spawned musical progeny. One doesn't have to make a running jump to reach Shostakovich from Prokofieff, for example, and Ginastera is an easy step from Bartók.

For some reason (probably the innate conservatism of most recitals; after all, we wouldn't want disturb anybody's nap), one doesn't encounter all that often Bartók's piano music, outside the concerti and the Sonata for 2 Pianos and Percussion. Furthermore, the same works tend to get recorded again and again. Perahia's recital mixes the usual, relatively speaking, and the rare. Perahia made his bones as a Mozart specialist, and Bartók seems like a huge stretch. Emotionally, they certainly stand poles apart. Mozart always seems in psychic balance, while Bartók apparently enjoys playing the wild man.

Perahia opens with a roar, the rarely-heard Piano Sonata of 1926, a masterpiece of the composer's "barbaric" period, which also includes the First Piano Concerto and the Third String Quartet. This isn't really the folky Bartók. Rather, the folk elements have become sublimated into the composer's own brand of Modernism, most easily seen in the third movement, which obviously links to fast country dances and which no peasant would actually dance to. The whole work is as concentrated and hard as a tight fist. The first movement moves as relentlessly as a tank. It stomps and howls. The second looks deeply inward, and the third erupts in ecstatic frenzy. The Sonata grabs hold of you at the opening notes and just never lets go. The piece leaves me breathless. My favorite performance was live, by a pianist named Richard Farner – my first encounter with the work. My favorite recording was an old Dover Publications LP with the Hungarian pianist István Nádas, but it will make it to CD when pigs fly. Meanwhile, how does Perahia do? I don't hesitate to call this one of my favorite recordings of the work, one I like more than Argerich's or Sandor's. It resembles in broad outline Jenő Jandó's reading on Naxos. All that Mozart did Perahia a world of good in Bartók. First, he doesn't fall into the trap of constant pounding, and, believe me, the first and last movements tempt many pianists to perdition. I would characterize Perahia's account as both exciting and elegant. He seems to approach the score almost orchestrally – certainly polyphonically, with all kinds of inner voices coming out and in their own colors. Oddly enough, the pianists I thought of most were Horowitz and Pollini. Yet, as far as I know, neither recorded this sonata. Perahia's contrapuntal clarity stands out, particularly in the many, many stretti (one voice entering with the same matter before another voice finishes with it).

The Suite, from 1916, shows Bartók under the influence of late Debussy – early Modernism without substantial links to folk music. The music, by no means dreck, nevertheless doesn't sound particularly like Bartók. Just four years later, we hear folk elements becoming integral to the composer's musical thought. The Improvisations of 1920 probably aren't that, strictly speaking, but they are indeed highly concentrated studies of various techniques that both summed up Bartók's previous approach to setting folk music and pointed the way to what he would do. Eight little pieces, with one exception arranged in four groups of two, slow-fast in the manner of binary Hungarian dances (compare with the famous Liszt Hungarian Rhapsody #2), progress from the idiom of some of the simpler Mikrokosmos toward the "hard-core," until the final duo seems to have most of the elements of the Piano Sonata.

Out of Doors, written just after the Piano Sonata, brims full of the percussive writing of that work, while it incorporates more folk elements. In five mostly short movements, it doesn't eschew dissonance or harsh sounds. Yet, I think it more accessible than the sonata, simply because almost all its phrasing come from folk music. Critics have called it "representational" music. At least in the final two movements, one clearly gets a descriptive impulse from the music. "With Drums and Pipes" pounds like the Sonata; you definitely hear the drums. The restless "Barcarolla," while not atonal, nevertheless sounds "tonally untethered," never really settling into a particular key. "Musettes" again work with the binary Hungarian dance forms. The "Musiques Nocturnes," one of Bartók's earliest "night pieces," redefines the Romantic nocturne from an evocation of psychological impressions to a translation of physical phenomena – wind, insects, animals, even ambient song – into music. If you like, it moves you not by telling you about the state of the composer's soul, but by enumerating elements of the objective scene. The finale, "The Chase," a riot of virtuoso fingerwork, gives you barking dogs, galloping horses, and a point of view changing from pursuer to pursued and back again.

All of the music so far has come from the Teens to the mid-Twenties. We now move ahead by a decade, to the period of the composer's high Modernism and the masterpieces on which his critical reputation largely rests (although I've yet to hear a weak-sister score by the mature Bartók; does one actually exist?). Certainly, the Sonata for 2 Pianos and Percussion (1937) counts as one of those masterworks. Bartók spent a lot of time on it, concerned especially for the balance and the placement of all the instruments. His publisher persuaded him to orchestrate the work, but I find its latter incarnation less remarkable than his first thoughts. I've always regarded the orchestration more as an exploitation of possible concert opportunities than as an artistic necessity or fulfillment. In many ways, it mirrors the Piano Sonata in the character of its movements, though not in its structure. For one thing, the first movement (of three) takes up almost half the piece.

Compared to the earlier Piano Sonata, the counterpoint, while not reduced, relaxes more. Most of the byplay occurs between the two pianos, with the percussion usually providing a color accent, although one finds this less true of the diverting finale. Even so, the work as a whole ranks as one of Bartók's most beautifully planned in terms of the interplay among the ensemble. That's what I miss here in this star-studded performance. It sounds like everybody's recorded in separate rooms on different days. There are individual moments from individual players, particularly Perahia (or the pianist I take to be Perahia), but nothing really adds up to full power from the entire quartet. You have your choice of other recordings. Fine ones include Robert and Gaby Casadesus with their son Jean-Claude and Jean-Pierre Drouet on percussion, Argerich and Kovacevich (on a splendid Philips two-fer), and Argerich and Freire on DG. Naturally, my all-time favorite is no longer available: the Kontarsky twins, Alfons and Alois, on DG, which had indeed made it to CD. Try the second-hands. It's definitely worth seeking out.

But for the 2-piano sonata, the CD really does live up to the hype of Sony's "Great Performances" series. Perahia by me is a major Bartók player – elegant, yes, but not afraid to mix it up when really called for. Who knew? For more excellent Bartók playing, check out as well Barbara Nissman on Pierian, another pianist who doesn't get her due.

Copyright © 2008, Steve Schwartz