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Béla BARTÓK (1881-1945)
Allegro barbaro, Sz49a (1911) [2:31]; Romanian Christmas Carols, Sz57b (1915) [10:43]; Romanian Folk Dances, Sz56c (1915) [5:10]; Sonatina on Rumanian Folk Tunes, Sz55c (1915) [3:57]; Suite, Op. 14/Sz62d (1916) [8:05]; 15 Hungarian Peasant Songs, Sz71e (1914-18) [13:26]; Three Hungarian Folktunes, Sz66c (1914-18, rev. 1941) [3:49]; Three Studies, Sz72f (1918) [7:09]; Three Rondos on Folktunes, Sz84b (1916-27) [8:07]; Andanteg (originally the second movement of the Suite, Op. 14) [1:42]
Zoltán Kocsis (piano)
rec. Friedrich-Ebert-Halle, Hamburg, a20 August, b17 August, d18 August, f19 August 1993, c2 September 1991, eHenry Wood Hall, London, 10-11 February 1980 and gPhoenix Studio 23 October 2007. DDD
HUNGAROTON HCD32527 [65:35] 
Experience Classicsonline

The Bartók playing of Zoltán Kocsis set new standards when it was first released on Philips. It has re-emerged on Hungaroton now - with a brief 2007 supplement. The programming here – in what is volume 4 of the works for piano solo - is exemplary, as are both the playing and the recordings. Famous pieces are separated by groups of Christmas Carols, folk-dances and folk-tunes that represent a famous and vitally important aspect of Bartók’s persona. 

Kocsis is the antithesis of those pianists who take the title of the Allegro barbaro to refer to the whole work and pound away relentlessly. Kocsis is responsive to the ebb and flow that is found here. 

He is responsive to the many smaller pieces here, moving from guileless innocence to peasanty stomping within a whisker of time. The two series of Christmas Carols are not the sweet, heart-warming efforts one associates with the genre; rather, they refer to a more pagan celebration of the Winter Solstice and emerge as earthier and even mystic. The Romanian Folk Dances Sz56 are more popular, and during the composer’s lifetime this was probably Bartók’s most oft-performed piece. They can be heard also in the 1925 arrangement for violin and piano by Székely - given as an encore in Vadim Repin’s QEH recital of February 2007, by the way. This is wonderful music. Kocsis makes the most of the hectic penultimate movement, “Rumanian Polka” and the final “Fast Dance”, revelling in the pedal effects that take the notes and converting them into echt-Bartókian harmonies. The greatest compliment Kocsis can surely receive is that he raises the status of these collections to substantive statements. In this they escape their folkloristic origins into the Bartókian arena while, simultaneously, remaining true to their origins. This is quite a tightrope act that sits on the dividing line between ethnomusicology and composition. 

The brief Sonatina takes the bagpipe music of Hunyad and Buhar and the open-string fiddle of the ‘Bear Dance’ and ends with a helter-skelter finale. Kocsis projects the open-air feel of it all expertly without for a milli-second sacrificing any professionality in terms of clarity and accuracy. Much the same goes for the Op. 14 Suite, a work that was in stylistic terms in transition to Bartók’s later sparer, leaner writing. Schoenberg (Op. 11 Klavierstücke) and Liszt (Faust Symphony) are both audible influences. The finale, marked ‘Sostenuto’ is especially memorable in its haunting demeanour. The Appendix to the disc includes the ‘extra’ movement, the original second movement, a brief but haunting Andante, recorded by Kocsis in 2007. 

The 15 Hungarian Peasant Songs is divided up into ‘Four Old Sorrowful Songs’ and ‘Old Dance Tunes’. The Andante second song will be familiar to many. The grouping of the 15 songs accords to a four-movement structure, making this group eminently suitable for the concert platform. It works beautifully. 

The Three Hungarian Folktunes are from 1941 and were published in a collection, Hommage to Paderewski. Despite the date, they sit well with the pieces we hear from around 1910. Moving away from folktune to the etude, Kocsis gives stunning,  technically perfect renditions of the Three Studies, Op. 18. Contemporaneous with Miraculous Mandarin, these Etudes are daring and exhibitionistic. The second seems to owe a debt to Ravel’s Gaspard, while Liszt hovers in the background elsewhere. Stimulating music, breathtakingly performed and recorded. The final study almost sounds as if it is by Nancarrow. In complete contrast comes the simplicity of the Andante first Rondo on Folktunes; the remaining two rondos are far more progressive. 

The booklet notes are exemplary in their depth and readability – if only all issues were like this. You’ll want this if you don’t already own the original Philips discs.

Colin Clarke



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