About this Recording
9.70181 - BARTÓK, B.: Mikrokosmos, Vols. 4 and 5 (L. Kertész)

Béla Bartók (1881–1945)
Piano Music • 4


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 he received his early piano lessons. The death of his father in 1889 led to a less settled existence, as his mother returned to work as a teacher, eventually making her home in Pozsony, the modern Bratislava, where Bartók passed his early adolescence, counting among his school-fellows the composer Ernő 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 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, particularly 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 holding teaching positions at Columbia and Harvard, Bartók suffered from increasing ill-health and from poverty which the conditions of exile in war-time could do nothing to alleviate. He died in straitened circumstances in 1945, leaving a new Viola Concerto incomplete and a Third Piano Concerto more nearly finished.

Mikrokosmos is a remarkable collection of pieces, forming a coherent introduction to the kind of piano technique necessary for performance of contemporary music, starting from the simplest beginning and leading to the concert pieces of the sixth and final volume. The first two books, written in 1926, were dedicated to Bartók's second son, Peter. By 1937 the collection, still unpublished, included 153 pieces, some of which the composer was including in his own recitals, as he did in the last concert he gave in Hungary in October 1940 and the first he gave in the United States after his emigration.

The first book of Mikrokosmos includes 36 short pieces, without thumb-crossing, and this elementary technique is continued in the thirty pieces of the second book. The third volume contains a further thirty pieces. The 25 pieces of the fourth book, which now involves thumb-crossing, start with a Notturno, followed by a study in thumb crossingand No 99, bitonal and involving crossed hands. No 100 is in the style of a folk-song, followed by a study in diminished fifths. No 102, Harmonics, explores the possibilities of resonance with keys pressed down but not sounded, and there are further examples of contrasting tonalities between the two hands. No 107, Melody in the Mist, brings tone clusters, followed by Wrestling, with its abrupt dynamic contrasts. From the Island of Bali introduces an exotic element and Nos. 113 and 115 offer examples of asymmetrical Bulgarian rhythm. No 116 is a Hungarian melody and No 120 a melody in the mixolydian mode.

In the fifth volume there are eighteen pieces, of greater length and complexity. The first piece, No 122, is a chordal study, followed by studies in staccato and legato. No 126 provides an exercise in changes of time, No 127 is presented as a song, with rhythmic chordal piano accomapniment. No 128, a Stamping Dance, is followed by the alternating thirds of No 129 and the varied touch called for in the Lydian mode Village Joke, No 130. Varied touch is demanded again in the Fourths of No 131, leading to a study in seconds and No 133 with Syncopation and the three elements of No 134, Studies in Double Notes. No 135 displays the rapidity of a Perpetuum Mobile, to be continued, we are told, ad infinitum. Other studies introduce Whole-tone Scales, Unison, Bagpipe Music and a final Jack-in-the-Box or Hanswurst.

Mikrokosmos offers an innovative introduction to piano technique and to compositional devices, to be combined, as Bartók suggests, with other studies, with JS Bach's Anna Magdalena Note Book, Czerny and material that may be suited to a particular student. Like Kodály he stresses the importance of singing and suggests various practical uses that his progressive pieces offer, for sight-reading, transposition or, in some cases, for playing with others. Together with For Children, the 44 Duos for two violins and other works, Mikrkosmos should introduce an aspiring musician to new worlds, to the world of folk-music, that is never far away, and to innovative compositional techniques of the developing twentieth century.

Keith Anderson

Recording Venue: The Rottenbiller Street Studio of Hungaroton
Recording Date: 6 to 9 June 2011
Balance engineer: János Győri
Recording producer and digital editing: Péter Aczél
Sponsored by the majors of Gyula, Keszthely and Hévíz

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