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Seen and Heard Recital Review


Bartók, Piano music. Pierre-Laurent Aimard and Tamara Stefanovich, pianos; Colin Currie and Sam Walton, percussion. Wigmore Hall, London. 09.06.2006 (ED)

Seven pieces from Mikrokosmos (P-LA and TS duet)
Fourteen Bagatelles, op.6, nos 8-14 (TS)
Sonata (TS)
Three studies, op.18 (P-LA)
Four dirges, op.9a (P-LA)
Out of Doors suite, Sz. 89 (P-LA)
Sonata for two pianos and percussion

Bartók’s association with the piano was a long and involved one, both as a composer and a performer. That this concert presented the essential threads of a debate that occupied his creativity goes some way to explain why this was an unmissable one within the context of Wigmore Hall’s Bartók Festival.

Bartók’s debate centred around the question “What kind of instrument is a piano?” Is it a sustainer of harmony and melodic line, as many have tried to make it, or is it more naturally disposed towards a percussive style of playing? Bartók was not the first to observe that the piano is in effect a percussion instrument by dint of the fact that hammers hit strings as a direct consequence of fingers hitting keys. He was however the first composer to explore the debate so widely and there is little doubt his own experiences as a performer lent his contributions added importance.

The seven short pieces selected from Mikrokosmos made an eloquent case for the instrument’s lyrical abilities, with Aimard and Stefanovich effectively exploiting qualities that ranged from lilting tempi via unrest – in unison and over a sustained ground – to harmonic intricacies overlaid with rhythmic variations. That the last piece also displayed some wit in the writing and its ability to look back to Romantic styles placed Bartók’s understanding of the instrument in some kind of context.

The selected Bagatelles were played as a joined sequence by Tamara Stefanovich. They formed a telling contrast in that the writing was notable for its sparseness, no.8 seeming cut short and disjointed in character. Later items explored the instruments ability to project repeated notes in a cymbal-like manner, rhythmic angularities or quickfire virtuosity as an end in itself. Stefanovich approached all with an assured touch and cast each in a subtly different mould.

Her playing of the sonata demonstrated that for her the work could be seen as an extension of the Bagatelles in terms of intention at least. In the first movement she emphasised the bass orientation of the writing out of which grew themes of rhythmic complexity that were themselves exercises in gradually built sonorities. Stefanovich’s ear for nuance and sense of timing in articulating such refined qualities proved very acute, particularly when difficult dischords were required. By contrast, the attack and bold phrasing she brought to the last movement proved no less effective.

Pierre-Laurent Aimard, ever a pianist of insight and ruthless fidelity to the score, brought his powers of musical dissection to the Three Studies, Four Dirges and the Out of Doors suite. If the first two might be thought less important works than the last Aimard showed that they were not to be found wanting when it came to containing powerful and diverse thoughts. The second study was akin to Debussy, although penned by a Hungarian. The third study no sooner had ideas than dissolved them into nothing. The dirges, as one might reasonably expect, displayed sparse melancholia, organic textures that grew unforced from the bass within a uniform mezzo-forte and an approach to texture that utilised blocks of sound as opposed to superimposed lines.

In the Out of Doors suite Bartók exploits the opportunity to make the piano take on the characteristics of other instruments. The drums and pipes of the first movement danced vigorously under Aimard’s incisive fingers. Some delight was taken in the unevenness of tempo possible within the second movement, and the opportunity to overlay textures in the third movement was not missed. This led most effectively to The night’s music, movement four, with its delicately pedalled dischords to form something approaching a musical dream state, though a distinctly uneasy one. The final movement was given by Aimard as a demonstration of fine hammer control – spiky, alert and devoid of anything extraneous to the music’s idiom.

There could be no more natural a conclusion for this concert than a performance of Bartók’s Sonata for two pianos and percussion. That the composer wished all four players to assume equal importance in the work is known, and so it was here. From a slowly grown introduction emerged a sense of unity within the playing characterised by a natural flow to the rhythmic progression of the opening movement. Differences and similarities of timbre between the pianos and percussion and some exploration of dynamic extremes were felt particularly in the second movement. For much of the time here Currie and Walton appeared to take a subtle lead, with Aimard and Stefanovich left to approximate percussive effects. The final movement however throws the debate wide open with obvious percussive elements to the piano writing. The final gesture given by both pianists is unapologetically a pianistic flourish rather than a percussive one. Perhaps it indicates that even after such a lengthy internal debate Bartók could not deny the role of romantically derived virtuosity for the pianist. For that you need lyricism above all else.

Evan Dickerson


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Contributors: Marc Bridle (North American Editor), Martin Anderson, Patrick Burnson, Frank Cadenhead, Colin Clarke, Paul Conway, Geoff Diggines, Sarah Dunlop, Evan Dickerson Melanie Eskenazi (London Editor) Robert J Farr, Abigail Frymann, Göran Forsling, Simon Hewitt-Jones, Bruce Hodges,Tim Hodgkinson, Martin Hoyle, Bernard Jacobson, Tristan Jakob-Hoff, Ben Killeen, Bill Kenny (Regional Editor), Ian Lace, Jean Martin, John Leeman, Neil McGowan, Bettina Mara, Robin Mitchell-Boyask, Simon Morgan, Aline Nassif, Anne Ozorio, Ian Pace, John Phillips, Jim Pritchard, John Quinn, Peter Quantrill, Alex Russell, Paul Serotsky, Harvey Steiman, Christopher Thomas, John Warnaby, Hans-Theodor Wolhfahrt, Peter Grahame Woolf (Founder & Emeritus Editor)