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Béla BARTÓK (1881-1945)
Piano Music - Volume 1: The Mature Bartók
Andreas Bach (piano)
rec. Klaus-von-Bismarck-Saal, WDR Köln, Germany, 2008-14
HÄNSSLER CLASSIC CD98.042 [3 CDs: 58:45 + 53:40 + 71:05]

This is the first release in a series of five over the next twelve months or so. Once complete this cycle will offer the complete piano music of Béla Bartók. This will be the first since Zoltán Kocsis’ excellent set for Philips, now released on Decca as part of the ‘Collectors Edition’ (4782364). There have been other recordings that claim to be 'complete' but are only on four or five CDs. None seem as complete as the Kocsis is or this set will be. Indeed, this Hänssler set already contains music not available in the Kocsis. It offers the posthumously published Andante, originally intended as the second movement of the Suite Op. 14, which László Vikárius, the director of the Bartók Archives Budapest, and author of the excellent booklet notes, comments on. He thinks that Bartók “probably felt that it placed too severe a brake on the emotional dynamics of the composition.”, and that this is why he removed the piece prior to publication.

For Bartók the piano was key, not only as a tool in composition, but also as his own instrument. He was after all something of a piano virtuoso, giving concerts for most of his life and not just of his own music. This new edition of the piano music has been divided into five separate issues with subsequent volumes being entitled: Vol. 2 “The Romantic Bartók”, Vol. 3 “Bartók and Folk Music”, Vol. 4 “For Children” and Vol. 5 “Mikrokosmos”. The pianist, Andreas Bach, recorded all of Bartók’s solo piano music for Westdeutscher Rundfunk, one of the public broadcasting authorities in Germany, between 2008 and 2014. Bach states that he used the composer’s own recordings as a performance guide when it came to making his own, taking into account the limitations of the dynamics offered by the recording equipment of Bartók’s day.

The present set, “The Mature Bartók”, sets down the works composed in Bartók’s more individualist style and as such it can be regarded as some of his most difficult music to get a handle on. I personally find it his most rewarding music, and not just for the piano. It gives the listener an insight into Bartók the composer, as well as Bartók the performer, and therefore into his life. He relied for much of his life on the income he generated through public performances, yet in these pieces he composes music which audiences would have found difficult, or even shocking.

There are works that employ a percussive way of composing for, and indeed the playing of, the piano. This is apparent from the very first track of CD 1, which is entitled With Drums and Pipes. Bartók here uses the heavier nature of the piano to mimic the sound of the ‘drums’, contrasting these with more lyrical writing to indicate the more folk-like sound of the ‘pipes’. This combination of new and old was nothing new for the composer. In Allegro barbaro, composed some fifteen years earlier, a piece which has become one of Bartók’s most famous and often performed works, the composer combines his own melodic and harmonic textures with Eastern European folk tunes. The result is quite mesmerising.

Out of Doors, which opens CD 1, dates from 1926, Bartók’s ‘piano year’. This came after a period of relative inactivity as a composer, with Bartók being in greater demand as a performer throughout Europe and America. The return to composing was not only to satisfy the demand for new works for these concerts, but also showed the composer seeking to change and revise his piano style. Other notable works from this year that feature on this set are the Sonata and the Little Pieces. The direct style of the Sonata is often dissonant and polytonal, which is where the left hand plays in one key and the right hand plays in a different one. Whilst the music is based upon Hungarian and Rumanian folk music, the folk element can be hard to find. This differs from the way that Bartók employs Rumanian folk and dance tunes in his Sonatina of 1915. Here he presents the music in classical structure and in his most attractive and accessible style whilst presenting the performer with some technically demanding passages. It packs a lot into its four minutes or so and I have been told it sounds easier than it is to play.

When it comes to the Suite Op. 14, you can see why Bartók dropped the original second movement Andante from the work. The first three movements build up the tension and intensity through quick agitated rhythms, especially in the middle movements. The final movement comes as a total contrast. It makes what Kenneth Chambers describes as “bleak yearning” (Bela Bartók, Phaidon Press, 1995) and seems an apt conclusion. Programming the work so that the Andante is placed in its original position does not seem to work as well. It breaks up the intensity of the work, so here I agree with László Vikárius.

There are plenty of wonderful pieces of music here, sadly too many to discuss, but this set presents an ideal entry into the piano music of one of the twentieth century’s greatest pianist-composers. Yes, some of the music presented here is among Bartók’s most challenging for the instrument, but it is also for me the most thrilling and rewarding. It is also some of the composer’s most personal.

I really enjoyed Andreas Bach’s approach, in terms of tempo. He tends to be slower than Zoltán Kocsis, but not by much. There are times when I prefer Kocsis’ interpretation, but then there are times when I prefer Bach’s, I will in the fullness of time have to compare both with the composer's own recordings. There is certainly room for a further complete recording of Bartók’s wonderful piano music in the catalogues. If the further releases in this series are of this high standard it will be a worthy contender and one which all lovers of this music should invest some time in getting to know.
 
Stuart Sillitoe

Contents
Out of Doors Sz. 81/BB 89 (1926) [15:44]
10 Easy Piano Pieces Sz. 39/BB 51 (1908) [17:37]
3 Burlesques Op. 8c/Sz. 47/BB 55 (1908-1911) [7:29]
Petite Suite SZ. 105/BB 113 (1936) [7:04]
4 Dirges Op. 9a/Sz. 45/ BB 58 (1909-1910) [10:37]
3 Studies Op. 18/Sz. 72/BB 81 (1918) [8:11]
Sonatina Sz. 55/BB 69 (1915) [4:22]
Sonata Sz. 80/BB 88 (1926) [14:19]
7 Sketches Op. 9b/Sz. 44/BB 54 (1908-1910) [11:16]
Dance Suite Sz. 77/BB 86 (1923, 1925) [15:23]
Allegro barbaro Sz. 49/BB 63 (1911) [2:50]
9 Little Pieces Sz. 82/ BB 90 (1926) [14:43]
Suite Op. 14/Sz. 62/BB 70 (1916) [9:43]
14 Bagatelles Op. 6/Sz. 38/BB 50 (1908) [30:07]
The First Term at The Piano Sz. 52-53/BB 67 (1929) [11:32]
Andante (posthumously published, original second movement of Suite Op. 14) [2:10]