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8.555329 - BARTÓK, B.: Piano Music, Vol. 3 (Jandó) - Out of Doors / Ten Easy Pieces / Allegro Barbaro
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Béla Bartók (1881-1945)

Béla Bartók (1881-1945)

Piano Music, Volume 3


The Hungarian composer Béla Bartók was born in 1881 in a region 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 Bartók received his early piano lessons. The death of his father in 1888 led to a less settled existence, as his mother resumed work as a teacher, eventually settling in the present capital of Slovakia, Bratislava (the Hungarian Poszony), 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 Zoltán Kodály, in the folk-music of his own and adjacent countries, later extended as far as Anatolia, where he collaborated in research with the Turkish composer Adnan Saygun.


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 régime of Admiral Horthy. Meanwhile his reputation abroad grew, in particular 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 held teaching appointments at Columbia and Harvard, Bartók suffered from increasing ill-health, and from a poverty that the conditions of exile in war-time could do nothing to alleviate. He died in straitened circumstances in 1945, leaving sketches for a new Viola Concerto and a more nearly completed Third Piano Concerto. The years in America, whatever difficulties they brought, also gave rise to important compositions, including the Concerto for Orchestra, commissioned by the Koussevitzky Foundation, and a Sonata for Solo Violin for Yehudi Menuhin.


As a pianist Bartók had had a number of teachers in the years before his mother settled in Bratislava. There he became a pupil of László Erkel, son of the well-known Hungarian opera-composer Ferenc Erkel, and after his teacher’s death in 1896, of Anton Hyrtl, acquiring from both a knowledge of piano repertoire and of traditional compositional techniques. In Budapest his piano teacher was István Thomán, a pupil of Liszt, and his composition teacher the traditionalist Hans Koessler. From the early 1890s, at least, Bartók had written music for the piano, a series of works that remain unpublished, a fate that he might have preferred for his Four Pieces, published in 1904. He continued to write for the piano until he left for America in 1940, including among these compositions works for concert performance and pieces designed for students, in the comprehensive collection Mikrokosmos covering a level of competence from that of the beginner to that of the mature performer.


The five pieces that make up Out of Doors were written in the summer months of 1926. The first, With Drums and Pipes, makes percussive use of discordant intervals, at first in the lowest register of the piano. Above this fragments of melody appear, limited in range. Barcarolla is asymmetric in rhythm, making use of the interval of a fourth and moving forward through the constant quaver figuration that runs through the whole piece. Musettes provides the bagpipe drone suggested in the title, with only fragments of melody. The Night’s Music is a characteristic evocation of the sounds of the night in tone-clusters, explored elsewhere in his music and here making use of the particular resonances of the piano. The piece was dedicated to his second wife, the pianist Ditta Bartók. The Chase is impelled forward by its energetic repeated rhythmic figures, with insistent groups of five notes in the left hand providing the constant accompaniment to melodic elements.


Bartók wrote his Four Dirges in 1909-1910, later revising them. Parts of the set were first performed in Budapest in 1917 by Dohnányi. They offer an immediate contrast to The Chase, the first gently sustaining resonances centred on the chord of B major. The second opens in unison, with added harmony notes held and then arpeggiated, as the music moves to a climax and then fades once more. The third has solemn fifths doubled in the lower register, an octave melody above. The same mood of serene acceptance also permeates the fourth piece.


The Two Romanian Dances of the same date, the second revised in 1943, were inspired by the folk-music of Romania, but are relatively extended concert pieces. The first opens with an ostinato accompaniment figure in the left hand, against which a vigorous folk-dance is heard, the whole piece mounting to a great dynamic climax. The second starts with a right-hand ostinato figure, the music gradually gathering momentum, a derivative of folk-music and its spirit and energy, translated into very different terms.


Bartók wrote his Ten Easy Pieces in 1908. The Dedication that precedes the ten starts with the notes that he associated with his friend, the violinist Stefi Geyer, for whom he wrote the first of his two violin concertos, which she never played. The motif appeared in the concerto and then in the Two Portraits of 1911 that re-used the material of the concerto, returning also to the last of the Fourteen Bagatelles, with the same motif. The Peasant’s Song presents the melody in unison, while Painful Wrestling, its title variously translated, has an insistent ostinato accompaniment. The Slovakian Peasant’s Dance, like the two Hungarian Folksongs, the sixth and eighth of the pieces, is an arrangement of a folk-song. The nostalgic Sostenuto, suggesting Debussy in more than its final left-hand rising whole-tone scale, is followed by the most familiar of the pieces, An Evening at the Village, included in the orchestral Hungarian Sketches of 1931, a juxtaposition of two pentatonic melodies. The energetic Bear Dance was also included in the same orchestral work. Between the two Hungarian Folksongs comes Dawn, akin to Sostenuto in mood. Finger Exercise, not quite a conventional five-finger exercise, as it turns out, has a five-note ostinato throughout. Bear Dance provides a typically vigorous ending to the set.


The Allegro barbaro of 1911 challenges the contemporary public in its title and content, as it is impelled onward, before relaxing for a moment into a gentler mood. Like much else, it has its roots in Magyar folk-music, now absorbed into the composer’s own musical language.


The Three Hungarian Folktunes date from 1907 and were also arranged for recorder and piano. The Three Burlesques of 1908-1911 offer an immediate contrast. The first of them, Quarrel, was dedicated to Bartók’s first wife, his former student, Márta. As its title suggests, it includes harsh dissonances, with very brief moments of apparent reconciliation. The second, A Little Tipsy, orchestrated in the later Hungarian Sketches, is described as ‘in an unsteady rhythm’, appropriate to its title. The third, with no title, has less strident clashes in its headlong and capricious course.


Keith Anderson

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