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.
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.
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.
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.
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.