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Every day we post 10 new Classical CD and DVD reviews. A free weekly summary is available by e-mail. MusicWeb is not a subscription site. To keep it free please purchase discs through our links.

  Classical Editor Rob Barnett    


BELA BARTÓK (1881-1945)
PIANO MUSIC VOL. 2

Dance Suite, Sz.77
Slovakian Dance
Improvisations,Op. 20,Sz.74
Petite Suite, Sz.105
Romanian Folk Dances, Sz.56
Sonatina, Sz.55
Romanian Christmas Carols,Sz.57
Jenö Jandó (piano)

Recorded Phoenix Studio, Prague October 1999
NAXOS 8.554718 [56.03]


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Having not come across Volume 1 of this series, I was intrigued to hear the second instalment of Naxos’s (presumably) complete survey of Bartók’s piano music. Like some of their other ongoing series’ (Schubert Lieder, Liszt piano music, The Eighteenth Century Symphony etc.), it comes into direct competition with one of the major labels, in this case the award-winning Philips series from Jandó’s fellow Hungarian Zoltan Kocsis. Previous Bartók recitals from Andor Foldes and Gyorgy Cziffra carried the authenticity of close association with the composer (not forgetting some of Bartók’s own forays into the studio), but by any standards the Kocsis series has become a benchmark in terms of pianism, recording quality and adherence to Bartók’s instructions (we know Kocsis studied some of those early recordings to get a fuller picture of the composer’s intentions). All in all, a hard act to follow.

It is to Jandó’s credit that one can safely listen to his performances and not feel the need to make those ’odious comparisons’ so beloved of critics. In fact admirers of the ubiquitous Naxos ‘in-house’ pianist can rest assured that Jandó is very much on home territory here, as indeed he proved to be previously when accompanying Gyorgy Pauk and Kalman Berkes on a superb disc of the Bartók Violin Sonatas and Contrasts (Naxos 8.550749).

As to the music itself, every item (like virtually all Bartók’s piano music) is folk-inspired. His ethnomusicological researches with Kodaly are well documented, and of course the results found their way into all his mature works. But as a gifted pianist, it was almost inevitable that his keyboard output would reflect his findings as fully as any of his other compositional areas.

All the pieces are in the form of suites or collections of short items (some very short-35 seconds!), and the first may well be the most intriguing of all to those who know Bartók’s output, a piano arrangement of the famous Dance Suite for orchestra. The original was written in 1923 to celebrate the union of the cities of Buda and Pest into the present-day Hungarian capital. The piece’s subtle interplay of Magyar dances, traditional Romanian melodies from the Wallachian region, and exhilaratingly infectious rhythmic ostinatos immediately made an impact and the suite established itself as one of Bartók’s most popular pieces. The piano arrangement was made at the suggestion of Emil Hertzka, director of the Viennese publisher Universal, who asked for something 'not too difficult’. In fact the resulting transcription is probably as difficult as anything in his output, and although Bartók apparently never included it in a recital, it was enthusiastically taken up by, amongst others, Geza Anda and the man who gave the first public performance, Gyorgy Sandor.

Anyone familiar with the orchestral version may at first miss the quirkily characteristic woodwind writing (as in the wistful ritornello theme that links the six movements) or the swooping trombone glissandi , an effect Bartók used from his savage early pantomime The Miraculous Mandarin through to his last completed work, the Concerto for Orchestra. No one need fear; in Jandó’s expert hands the orchestra is forgotten. His acutely observed performance shows a marvellously controlled vitality, and the necessary rhythmic attack never becomes aggressive, an easy mistake in Bartók (the composer’s own recordings amply demonstrate that beauty of tone and legato lyricism were as important to him as the percussive nature of the piano). If Kocsis’s version finds a shade more colour and contrast, Jandó’s is as viable in its restraint and thoughtfulness.

In some ways a more significant piece follows in the shape of the 8 Improvisations on Hungarian Peasant Songs Op. 20. This dates from 1920 and was the last piece to which Bartók gave an opus number, confirming from now on his ‘art’ and folk-derived compositions were to enjoy equal status. As he pointed out ‘… the used folk melody is to be regarded only as a motto, on which an … independent music can be created.' The result is a thoroughly typical mix of abrasive, pounding dissonance (that also harks back to the Mandarin), rhythmic syncopation and a truly improvisatory feel that looks ahead to the violin sonatas. The seventh of the set, interestingly, was Bartók’s contribution to the memorial supplement of ‘ La Revue musicale’, published in December 1920 in honour of a composer he greatly admired, Debussy. Jandó again rises to the occasion with playing of great subtlety and wit.

The rest of the recital is made up of what might be termed ‘creative transcriptions’, the most interesting of which is the Petite Suite. This is actually made up of piano arrangements of six of the 44 Duos for Two Violins, made in 1937, five years after the original. Again the Bartók ‘thumbprints’ are everywhere, with No. 4, entitled ‘Quasi Pizzicato’ being a particularly ingenious transcription into keyboard terms of the idiomatic string technique.

Jandó despatches all these works by his great predecessor with a panache and virtuosity that are wholly captivating and well up to the pianist’s own high standards. His superbly regulated instrument is well caught by the engineers and the recording venue is better than some from this source. A series to watch with interest, regardless of the famously tempting Naxos price.

Tony Haywood


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