Bartók Plays Bartók: Listen, and Learn

Bartok plays Bartok

BARTÓK: Allegro Barbaro; 10 Easy Pieces, Nos. 6 & 10; Rumanian Folk Dances; 2 Rumanian Dances; 14 Bagatelles: No. 10, Allegro giocoso; 3 Burlesques: No. 2, A Bit Drunk; Suite, Op. 14; 15 Hungarian Peasant Songs; Sonatina; Petite Suite; 3 Hungarian Folk Tunes; For Children, Vol. 1 (excerpts); Mikrokosmos (excerpts)+; Improvisations on Peasant Songs; 8 Hungarian Folk Songs (7)*; Rhapsody No. 1 for Violin & Piano#; 6 Rumanian Folk Dances#; Contrasts for Violin, Clarinet & Piano#^ / Béla Bartók, pianist; *Mária Basilides, contralto; Ferenc Székelyhidy, tenor; +Ditta Bartók Pásztory, pianist; #Jósef Szigeti, violinist; ^Benny Goodman, clarinetist / SCARLATTI: Sonatas in G, K. 427; A, K. 212; A, K. 537; B-flat, K. 70. BRAHMS: Capriccio in B minor, Op. 76, No. 2. KODÁLY: Hungarian Folk Music* / Béla Bartók, pianist; *Mária Basilides, contralto; *Vilma Medgyaszay, soprano; *Ferenc Székelyhidy, tenor / Hungaroton HCD-32790/91

It may be hard to believe today, but during their active careers both Serge Prokofiev and Béla Bartók were more famous as pianists than as composers. This was even truer of the latter than the former; by 1940 Prokofiev’s “Classical” Symphony, Romeo and Juliet ballet, Piano Concerto No. 3 and Peter and the Wolf were well known to and loved by American classical audiences (Love for Three Oranges had premiered in Chicago but bombed), whereas Bartók was mostly known to listeners for his Contrasts for Violin, Clarinet and Piano, commissioned by Benny Goodman. His Piano Concerto No. 2 premiered in Chicago in 1939 to hostile reviews and public reception and his great symbolist opera Bluebeard’s Castle didn’t premiere in the U.S. until 1949, five years after his death. Yet in the decades since his music has become well known and even rather well-liked, reissues of his own recordings on piano have been somewhat sporadic.

This is a shame, because Bartók’s performances of his own music reveals a musical style and aesthetic often at odds with the way his music is played today, even by Hungarian pianists. Some critics disagree with me on this, but I don’t see how they can unless their ears are screwed on backwards. Granted, the recorded sound isn’t very clear or particularly good. Most of his recordings (with the famous exception of Contrasts, made for Columbia Masterworks in 1940) were produced by small labels with poor microphone placement and covered sound, but audio editing brings out the sound of his piano with somewhat better fidelity than most record-buyers had throughout the 20th century. This 2-CD set, which may seem on the surface to simply be a reduction of the 4-CD set HCD-12334/37, turns out to actually only duplicate a clutch of performances found on CD 1 on that earlier, fuller release. This one includes all of his recordings from both the solo and duo-piano books of Mikrokosmos, which also proved (posthumously) to be among his most popular works, and to my knowledge haven’t been available since the old Odyssey LP of the early 1970s. This release also includes both Bartók’s and his good friend Kodály’s Hungarian Folk Song recordings, featuring the interesting voice of contralto Mária Basilides and the truly great voice of lyric-spinto tenor Ferenc Székelyhidy who premiered Kodály’s masterpiece, the Psalmus Hungaricus, but did not record it.

What one hears consistently throughout this set is a pianistic style in which rhythmic impetus is consistently wedded to a perfect legato. Even when Bartók does not use pedal, he manages to give the illusion of each struck note, however percussive or forceful, blending its overtones with the notes preceding and following it. It is a style of playing curiously close to that of Alfred Cortot and Arthur Rubinstein, even to the playing one hears on Ferruccio Busoni’s few recordings. [It is also the style one hears in Peter Donohoe’s superb recording of the three Bartók Concertos on EMI…see my description of this recording in The Penguin’s Girlfriend’s Guide.] This is in stark contrast to the playing of even so gifted and exuberant a pianist as Zoltán Kocsis, whose recordings of the complete Bartók piano concertos I liked very much when I first heard them. Excellent they may be, and you may prefer his playing to what Bartók himself gave in the rare recording of excerpts from the Second Concerto, but they are not at all like the composer in terms of phrasing, attack or articulation.

In short—and again, I am not trying to introduce a harsh criticism here so much as simply defining terms—Bartok’s own playing was replete with elegant phrasing and flow whereas that of most modern pianists is replete with a percussive attack and wide extremes in dynamics. With rare exceptions, Bartók himself made a more gradual change when moving from a piano to a forte or vice-versa, and used legato phrasing much more frequently. I don’t think this is because he was so much a “shrinking violet” as a performer so much as that he simply thought of his music as music and not as daring or violent in conception or execution. It’s like the difference between baritone Gerhard Hüsch singing Schubert’s Die Schöne Müllerin with a creamy legato and baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau singing it with an almost staccato delivery on every syllable of every word in such a way that the emphasis on text almost becomes disruptive. Some of Fischer-Dieskau’s performances are, of course, excellent despite his “3-D” style of interpretation, but one must simply be aware of the differences in order to make a qualitative judgment.

Perhaps the most instructive as well as unusual recordings here are the four Scarlatti sonatas. These were recordings I had never heard before, but they illustrate clearly Bartók’s aesthetic and how it was applied to different types of music. As in many modern-day HIP performances, he plays them very quickly, almost zipping through the fast passages with carefree insouciance, yet in places he slows down the tempo and relaxes the beat to play in an almost romantic fashion. Even as someone long familiar with his playing, I was startled by the feathery lightness of his touch in these works. By and large, however, I don’t care for this approach in Scarlatti nearly as much as the more personal and sometimes rhetorical style of Wanda Landowska on the harpsichord. I did, however, enjoy his lighthearted playing of Brahms’ Capriccio in B minor, despite the fact that this was one of his worst-sounding recordings from a technical standpoint—not only gritty and noisy, with a “scraping” sound that grows throughout the performance, but also with the piano recorded somewhat too distantly which results in our hearing the overtones of the instrument more clearly than the way Bartók strikes the keys. I was stunned to discover that this recording was made as late as 1939, in Budapest; I would have sworn it was made for Sears Roebuck on one of those cheap, flexible cellulite discs from circa 1929-30. Compare this to the 1940-42 American recordings (also for Columbia) of the Mikrokosmos excerpts, where Bartók’s piano tone is clear and singing—yet still “bound” more in a warm legato than we hear from most performers of his music today.

Why am I harping on this dichotomy of style so much? Because, dear readers, this is EXACTLY WHAT THE HISTORICALLY INFORMED CROWD CAN’T GET THROUGH THEIR CONCRETE SKULLS! Here they are, with their inconclusive written descriptions of 18th-century performances—many of which, by the way, completely contradict other descriptions from the same era—and they arrive at a “consensus” that we should play this music with consistent straight tone in the strings, winds, solo vocalists and choirs, and they don’t even have ONE recording to prove their case, yet not one modern performer of Bartók plays his music in any way like Bartók! So how can you claim even the slightest semblance of stylistic honesty when you mess up the music of composers whose style YOU CAN ACTUALLY HEAR? Ah, but don’t let hard physical evidence get in the way of your Fascist musical mindset. You go right ahead and live in your fantasy world of straight tone and whiny choruses and keep ruining music to the point where you make it nauseating, and I’ll keep on playing Bartók doing his own music and hear the way the composer intended it to sound like. In the meantime, I highly recommend this album despite its few stylistic anomalies in others’ music because of the light it sheds on Béla Bartók as a pianist.

— © 2016 Lynn René Bayley

Read The Penguin’s Girlfriend’s Guide to Classical Music OR

Read From Baroque to Bop and Beyond: An extended and detailed guide to the intersection of jazz and classical music

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