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8.557821-22 - BARTÓK, B.: Piano Music, Vol. 5 (Jandó) - Mikrokosmos (complete)
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Béla Bartók (1881-1945)
Mikrokosmos

 

The 153 'progressive piano pieces' of Mikrokosmos by Béla Bartók are a milestone in piano literature. As with other pedagogical collections, from Bach's Clavierbüchlein to György Kurtág's Játékok (Games) (which indeed owes its existence to that of the Bartók), it is not only an incitement to learning on the part of the willing student, but also an encapsulation of the sound-world that goes to make up its composer's mature idiom.

Taken as a whole, Mikrokosmos is Bartók's largest project and one that evolved intermittently over a lengthy period. Its origins go back to the Piano Method that the composer worked on with Sándor Reschofsky in 1913, to which Bartók contributed some 48 pieces, eighteen of which he extracted to form The First Term at the Piano. It was the inclination to devise a piano method of his own, coupled with a number of sketches left over from his immersion in piano composition during 1926, the year that saw the Piano Sonata, the suite Out of Doors, the Nine Little Piano Pieces and the First Piano Concerto, that was the catalyst for this collection. Even then, work continued fitfully, mainly during 1932-39, while the emergence of many pieces from the first three volumes relatively late on suggests that the concept of a cycle of gradually increasing difficulty was long pursued in theory rather than in practice.

Before the overall sequence had been finalised, Bartók was already playing selected numbers in concert, recording two pieces in 1937, and 32 of them in 1940, on both these occasions for Columbia. Even at the stage of negotiation with his publisher, he was still thinking in terms of a five-volume sequence, only latterly separating out those pieces intended for the first book into two separate volumes. It is also worth noting here that the complete collection was never intended for public performance: in particular, the first four volumes have a more or less didactic purpose, making them impracticable in this context. Even when presented as a recorded cycle, the purpose of some transposed and simplified versions can only really be demonstrated by the score, though the inclusion of either their two-piano or voice-and-piano forms (though not, in this recorded edition, for harpsichord) widens the remit of a project whose musical essence was never intended to be set in stone.

As to the titles of the individual pieces, Bartók drew on a wide range of sources, ranging from specifically musical terms and also technical procedures, via indications of regional provenance and folk derivation, to descriptions of a more or even wholly descriptive nature. Numerous composers, past and contemporary, are referred to over the cycle's course, the connections of which to major works Bartók wrote in this period make Mikrokosmos a guide to its composer's world like no other.

Book 1 starts very much at the beginning, as Bartók had done with his nine-year-old son Peter during 1933. Opening with the closely-related Six Unison Melodies (1-6), it moves gradually and, above all, methodically through various technical studies, yet includes self-sufficient numbers such as the austere Second Imitation and Inversion (25), the respectively plaintive and chaste miniatures In Dorian Mode (32) and In Phrygian Mode (34), and, above all, the Bachian poise of Chorale (35).

Book 2 widens the scope by including further modal pieces and also by investigating more complex, if still relatively elementary, technical issues. Notable among its content are the thoughtful Accompaniment in Broken Triads (42), the impressionistic Waves (51), the evocative remoteness of In Oriental Style (58), the closely intertwined melody and accompaniment of Pentatonic Melody (61), and, finally, the division between the hands of these components in Melody Divided (66).

Book 3 opens out the technical and associative process appreciably. Numerous pieces now take on the status of fully-fledged compositions. Among these are the lucidly thoughtful Melody against Double Notes (70), appropriately flowing and inward-looking offerings of Hommage à J. S. B. (79) and Hommage à R. Sch (80), the elegant intricacy of Variations (87), the contrapuntal lucidity of Duet for Pipes (88), and, finally, the suggestive mood-piece that is Once Upon a Time… (94).

Book 4 further places the emphasis on artistic as opposed to didactic writing, witness the eloquence of Notturno (97). The playfulness of Harmonics (102), the strange juxtaposition of ideas in Melody in the Mist (107), the haunting and highly idiomatic interplay of register and texture in From the Island of Bali (109), the concise tone-poem that is Intermezzo (111), and the plangency of Song (116): all are of the highest rank in Bartók's or any other composer's piano output.

Book 5 takes one into the realm of fully autonomous composition and, like its successor in the cycle, can be listened to and appreciated as a through-composed whole. Thus from the brusque energy of Chords Together and in Opposition (122), it proceeds through such numbers as the gracefully undulating motion of Boating (125), the robust energy of Stamping Dance (128), and the scenic evocation of Village Joke (130), via a series of exacting yet always pleasurable technical studies, to an exhilarating final group comprising the ricocheting chords of Perpetuum mobile (135), the Debussian process that is respectfully but wryly acknowledged in Whole-tone Scales (136), the imaginative use to which the synchronization of the hands is deployed in Unison (137), the timeless study in folk-music inflections that is Bagpipe Music (138) and, finally, the insouciance of Jack-in-the-Box (139), a vibrant conclusion to a wonderfully sustained sequence.

Book 6 is the culmination of the cycle both in its technical challenges and in its musical sophistication. From the skittering manner of Free Variation (140), it then proceeds to the lively repartee of Subject and Reflection (141), the quizzical depiction that is From the Diary of a Fly (142), and unforced integration of gesture and motion of Divided Arpeggios (143). An expressive apex is reached in Minor Seconds, Major Sevenths (144), the most extended number of the collection, a powerfully-sustained study in emotion and atmosphere whose impact is belied by its technical description. Moving through the insistently imitative textures of Chromatic Invention 3 (145), the joyous motoric rhythms of Ostinato (146) and implacable resolve of March (147), the cycle concludes with Six Dances in Bulgarian Rhythm (148-153), pieces that judiciously complement each other in manner and content, and which round-off the whole work to tellingly musical effect.

When asked, near the end of his life, about the meaning of his chosen title, Bartók explained that "Mikrokosmos may be interpreted as a series of pieces in many different styles, representing a small world. Or it may be interpreted as 'world of the little ones, the children'". There can be little doubt that, in terms both as an educational resource and also as a compendium of musical possibilities, Mikrokosmos represents an achievement that has few equals in the history of Western culture.

Richard Whitehouse


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