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EROICA Recordings $79.95
Sound samples available

Bela BARTÓK (1881-1945)
Solo Piano Works, Volumes 1-5

Volume 1: 7 Sketches (Sz 44); Sonata 1926 (Sz 80); 15 Hungarian Peasant Songs and Dances (Sz 71); 4 Dirges (Sz 45); Allegro Barbaro (Sz 49)
Volume 2: Suite (Sz 62); For Children "42 Hungarian Folk Songs" (Sz 42); 3 Burlesques (Sz 47)
Volume 3: 6 Roumanian Folk Dances (Sz 56); 10 Easy Piano Pieces (Sz 39); 14 Bagatelles (Sz 38); 3 Rondos on Folk Tunes (Sz 84); Sonatina (Sz 55); Roumanian Dance No.1 (Sz 43)
Volume 4: For Children "43 Slovakian Folk Songs" (Sz 42); Petite Suite (Sz 105)
Volume 5: 2 Elegies (Sz 41); 3 Hungarian Folk Songs (Sz 35); 9 Little Piano Pieces (Sz 82); Improvisations (Sz 74); Out of Doors (Sz 81)
June de Toth (piano)
No recording information: DDD
EROICA JDT 3136 [50:19 + 60:56 + 69:15 + 74:33 + 66:00]


This is a fascinating survey of a large part of Bartók’s mature music for the piano by a Hungarian-American pianist who has achieved a high reputation in this repertoire. Reading Eroica’s marketing information, I was impressed by the fact that de Toth was the only American to have participated in the festival in Budapest commemorating the 50th anniversary of Bartók’s death. Rather less so that she will be the first woman to record all Bartók’s piano music. I thought we had left gender distinctions well behind in these matters.

One could very roughly categorise the music on these five CDs as:-

  1. The better known or bigger works: Sonatina, Sonata, Out of Doors.

  2. Short but ambitious pieces in Bartók’s trenchant idiom; for example, the Seven Sketches, the Three Burlesques and the Allegro Barbaro.

  3. The collections of short pieces, such as those based on East European folk tunes.

Unless you are a Bartók specialist, there will be a lot of music in this collection that will be new to you!

It is immediately obvious that June de Toth is well up to the task of projecting the music on all points on the spectrum. At the dynamic end, the toccata-like finale of the Sonata from 1926 has all the percussive brilliance required, tempered with a refined musicality. The liner notes mention her interpretative angle as ‘lyrical and romantic’ which seems to me to work very well both in moderating the apparent brutality of the more overtly aggressive music and in shaping the many delightful little pieces.

As for the collections, it was a real voyage of discovery to listen to a whole sequence in one sitting, something I can’t imagine doing again, at least for the 42 Hungarian Folk Songs! Surely a recording like this is for dipping into and savouring from time to time and, if one is a pianist, to discover new and interesting material for exploration. There are many lovely miniatures here which, while they will never be well known, present the enquiring piano-lover with a treasure trove of riches. I will certainly be checking out the Bartók section on my next visit to Chappells!

To take one example, the Nine Little Piano Pieces make a fascinating set with two-part inventions - a cross between Bach and Debussy – mixed with witty and slightly bizarre genre pieces. Reordered with the contrapuntal pieces interspersed, the set would form the modern equivalent of a Couperin ordre.

In some ways, the most interesting pieces on the set are those that are less well known than, say, the Sonata but which exhibit all the hallmarks of Bartók’s style into which all his disparate influences – Liszt, Debussy, folk-music – were completely assimilated. For example, the Two Elegies are powerful, intense pieces, very pianistic in a Lisztian way. The Burlesques would also make strong recital pieces for the virtuoso pianist. June de Toth projects both these sets in a completely convincing manner

There is one singular feature of this CD set of which any potential purchaser must be aware. The recording acoustic is very close and still; there is no air around the notes. Clearly this must have been intended and it certainly leads to a truthful piano sound, in the sense that the piano is the only sound that you hear. The fact that the piano is a top-of-the-range Baldwin sounding in very good shape could be the only thing that stops you from thinking ‘grade 3 demonstration tape made by teacher in living room’ if the first track you hear is one of the Ten Easy Pieces.

I got used to the sound but you might sometimes miss the extra energy a livelier acoustic gives. June de Toth’s performance of ‘With Drums and Pipes’ from Out of Doors sounds pallid in comparison with that of Murray McLachlan on his recent Chisholm/ Bartók et al CD. However, a lot of the music in this collection has a domestic flavour for which this recorded ambience is entirely appropriate.

In summary, I thoroughly recommend this set. The performances are well thought out and meticulously prepared. There are lively and sensitive versions of the ‘big’ works and caring accounts of the many beautiful little pieces that in some way are really the essence of Bartók.
Roger Blackburn

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