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Thread: Bartok piano music........

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    Senior Member Itullian's Avatar
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    Question Bartok piano music........

    I love his piano concertos, but know little about his solo piano works.
    I don't hear it much.
    I heard some called , I think, children's music?
    And it sounded very simple and kind of boring.

    Can you tell me about it and what it's like?
    And good recordings?
    Thanks
    Last edited by Itullian; Sep-01-2018 at 00:34.
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    Senior Member elgars ghost's Avatar
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    Virtually all of Béla Bartók's piano music is in miniature form (even the epic Mikrokosmos teaching aid which starts with the basic and ends up more advanced) and a lot of it is derived from the folk music he picked up in Hungary and her immediate neighbours. Try the Allegro Barbaro (1911) first - if you can appreciate that then most of his other piano works shouldn't hold any hidden terrors.

    Last edited by elgars ghost; Sep-01-2018 at 00:32.
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    Quote Originally Posted by Itullian View Post
    I love his piano concertos, but know little about his solo piano works.
    I don't hear it much.
    I heard some called , I think, Children's Corner?
    And it sounded very simple and kind of boring.
    I avoid any piece of music called "Children's Corner," which is invariably kind of boring, no matter who wrote it.

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    Senior Member Dirge's Avatar
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    I like most of Bartók’s solo piano output and have a good many favorite recordings, but I’ve pared them down to my favorite favorites and listed them below. It turns out to be a reasonably representative sampling of Bartók’s solo piano output, I think, but if you want just a couple of recordings to get started with, go with Fischer’s live account of Fifteen Hungarian Peasant Songs and Kocsis’s account of Out of Doors … and if you want Bartók at his most challenging, you can’t beat Lowenthal’s account of the brutally difficult Three Studies.

    1911 - Allegro barbaro (~2½ minutes)
    :: Marik [Arbiter]
    I’ve yet to find a performance that has the angular volatility and just-controlled barbarism that I’d like to hear in this work, but Marik gets fairly close in a Thelonious Monk sort of way.

    1915 - Sonatina (~3½ minutes)
    :: Bartók [1920 Welte-Mignon piano rolls]
    Although there are a boatload of other recordings to chose from, no other pianist captures the slightly off-kilter humor of the work as effectively as the droll composer himself does … even via piano rolls, which almost certainly fail to capture much of the subtlety/nuance of the playing.

    1915 - Six Romanian Folk Dances (~5½ minutes)
    :: Bartók [1920 Welte-Mignon piano rolls] or (arr. Székely) Szigeti & Bartók [Columbia ’30]
    This popular work for piano is perhaps even more popular as a work for violin & piano.

    1916 - Suite
    :: Bartók [HMV ’29] or Marik [Arbiter]
    The Suite is one of Bartók’s few works of this period not to derive from existing folk song, but it has a folk-y feel about it much of the time even so, with an Arabic bent in the third movement. Speed and momentum builds through the first three movements as the music grows generally more chromatic/borderline atonal, setting you up for the unprecedentedly thrilling finale … which turns out to be a beautiful, rather sorrowful slow movement of much milder harmonic character.

    1918 - Fifteen Hungarian Peasant Songs (~14½ minutes)
    :: A. Fischer [BBC, live ’61]
    Of all the recorded performances that I’ve heard of Bartók’s relatively folk-y works, I’d cite Annie Fischer’s intensely earnest performance here as by far the most compelling. The depth of tone, the idiomatic phrasing, the unflagging focus & concentration, the strength of characterization … all contribute to the irresistible gravitas of her playing and the spirit of the noble peasant that she evokes.

    1918 - Three Studies (~8½ minutes)
    :: Lowenthal [Pro Piano]
    The First Étude has a chromatic blizzard of alternating seconds and thirds and ninths and tenths that result in a wonderful, oscillating sense of harmonic struggle and instability: Kocsis’ relatively suave and forgiving manner tends to assuage that sense, while Lowenthal’s relatively angular and severe manner tends to exacerbate it. The Second Étude features a beautiful chromatic melody and a wide array of ever-changing arpeggios. It has something of a “night music” atmosphere about it, with all manner of insidiously sophisticated harmonic transformations taking place in the glittering chromatic moonlight. Kocsis simply takes it too fast and kills the mood, while Lowenthal totally captures the atmosphere even as he plays with uncanny touch and precision. (György Sàndor, in his Vox recording, does the very opening of this Étude more beautifully than anyone, but he struggles a bit elsewhere.) The Molto sostenuto section of the Third Étude features a perpetually moving left hand laying down a foundation of fast-moving sixteenth-notes played in complex irregular rhythms, with time signatures changing almost every measure. This constant regrouping of notes results in an ever-changing pattern of accentuated notes, which results in an ever-changing pulse. While all that is going on, the right hand plays irregularly and asymmetrically spaced staccato chords that hop, skip & jump across the sixteenth-notes like a cat on a hot tin roof. (That’s my dubious understanding of what’s going on after reading all the descriptions of the Étude that I could find. For the most part, however, it remains magic to me.) Lowenthal’s ****-retentive temporal exactitude pays big dividends here, as he’s able to produce the most discernable “ever-changing pulse” of anyone I’ve heard.

    1920 - Improvisations on Hungarian Peasant Songs (~10½ minutes)
    :: Perahia [CBS]
    I was slow to warm to this subtly sophisticated and elusive work, which takes existing folk material and subjects it to all manner of harmonic and other improvisation. Superficially, the songs sort of sound like evolved descendants of the early Bagatelles. Perahia gives it an uncommonly full-/rich-toned and colorful performance that makes it sound less abstract and elusive than usual—not that there’s necessarily anything wrong with “abstract” and “elusive.”

    1926 - Piano Sonata (~12½ minutes)
    :: Argerich [EMI, live]
    The Piano Sonata is tough to play and tough to pull off interpretively: if you play it too straight, it can easily become repetitive, relentless, and monotonous; if you don’t play it straight enough, you risk undermining the work’s structural appeal. Argerich comes nearer to playing it straight than not, but she executes the bejesus out of it and commands your attention by sheer dint of her personality.

    1926 - Out of Doors (~13½ minutes)
    :: Kocsis [Philips] or Lowenthal [Pro Piano]
    With Kocsis, you get the sense that he’s taking the titles of the movements to heart and playing up the programmic nature of the music; with Lowenthal, you get the sense that he’s playing them abstractly, as “pure” music. Not surprisingly, then, Kocsis generally paints the more recognizable scene, but Lowenthal compensates by more deliberately and uncompromisingly revealing the rhythmic quirkiness and internal contrast and conflict of much of the music. I tend to favor Kocsis on the whole, but I like Lowenthal about as much, maybe more, in the first three movements. Lowenthal’s rather severe and angular “With Drums and Pipes” is compelling for the sense of controlled menace it conveys. His “Barcarolla” and “Musettes” are wonderfully tense and abstract (and a bit menacing too). In “The Night’s Music,” Kocsis focuses on and draws your attention to the underlying atmosphere of the music while dispatching the many and varied pointed effects/night noises in a sort of subtle slight-of-hand manner that gives them a “they’re there and gone before you can quite catch a glimpse of them” quality—very effective. Lowenthal, on the other hand, slightly overplays the effects and makes them a bit too blatant and conspicuous, robbing them of their fleeting and sneaky “What was that?!” quality. His account is still very effective in its way, but Kocsis’s more vividly atmospheric account wins out. Lowenthal brings out the inner goings-on of “The Chase” more powerfully, but Kocsis generates an uncanny sense of motion that I’ve never heard equaled—and the acceleration to chase speed at the start is perfectly built.

    1926–1939 - 34 excerpts from Mikrokosmos, including (6) Dances in Bulgarian Rhythm, “Boating,” “Bagpipes,” “Merry Andrew,” “From the Diary of a Fly,” Whole-tone Scale, Free Variations, Subject and Reflection, Minor Seconds and Major Sevenths, Ostinato, March (~48 minutes)
    :: Bartók [CBS ’40; Hungaroton transfer]
    The first time I heard these recordings (back when severe, percussive Bartók playing was the norm), I was surprised at how much Bartók’s own playing of these pieces made me think of Debussy. Bartók was slightly past his playing prime in 1940, but these are my overall favorite Mikrokosmos performances for the sheer savvy of the playing, particularly from a rhythmic standpoint. It’s also the choicest selection of Mikrokosmos that I’ve found, as it includes pretty much all of my favorite pieces and very few non-favorites.

    1939 - (6) Dances in Bulgarian Rhythm (from Mikrokosmos VI) (~8½ minutes)
    :: Lowenthal [Pro Piano]
    Bartók’s 1940 accounts of these demanding dances are rhythmically enlightening and undeniably charming, but the playing isn’t otherwise as taut and precise as it might be. Lowenthal’s playing, on the other hand, is as taut and precise as it might be, and he’s as rhythmically veracious a pianist as you’ll find, but his playing isn’t quite as flexible as it might be and the result is perhaps more impressive than charming. Still, Lowenthal’s is the most convincing recording of these dances that I know.

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