Béla BARTÓK (1881-1945)
Suite Op. 14 Sz 62 (1916) [10:04]
Out of Doors Sz 81 (1926) [15:23]
Fifteen Hungarian Peasant Songs Sz 71 (1914-8) [14:46]
Three Burlesques Sz 47 (1908-10) [8:15]
Mikrokosmos Sz 107 Book 6 (1939) [29:05]
Cédric Tiberghien (piano)
rec. 13, 15-16 November 2014, Henry Wood Hall, London
HYPERION CDA68123 [77:33]

The piano was Bartók’s own instrument, which he played to concert standard, appearing as soloist in his own very demanding concertos and with chamber musicians and as a recitalist. He also taught the instrument and indeed wrote his own progressive set of piano exercises, Mikrokosmos, of which we have the last book here. He is generally credited with having re-discovered the piano as a percussion instrument, compared for example to the lyricism of Chopin or the impressionism of Debussy, both of whom he admired. However, this side of his musical personality can be over-emphasized: he himself criticized the way some performers played his piano music as ‘too Bartóky’. His liking for major or minor seconds or for note clusters should be seen more as a matter of including some Hungarian spice in his music rather than of making it excessively aggressive: paprika rather than chilli, if you like – though there is indeed a certain aggression in some of his music, particularly in his earlier years.

Cédric Tiberghien is certainly well-placed to convey the flavour rather than the aggression in this music: his disc of Szymanowski piano music was astonishing in the subtlety of its colours and phrasing (review). He also has a robust side and, for example, plays a good deal of Brahms as well as partnering that very positive violinist Alina Ibragimova in the Viennese classics and other works. He has chosen a very varied programme for this Bartók recital, though there are two threads which run through it: one is the composer’s fascination with Hungarian folk music, of which he was an expert collector, and which he sometimes transcribes and sometimes uses as inspiration; the other is his liking for working out a musical idea systematically, even if only briefly, so that some of his pieces are in the nature of studies, whether or not so called.

There are four movements to the Suite Op. 14. By bthe way, Bartók’s use of opus numbers was capricious and he abandoned the system in 1920. His works are now usually identified by their Szőllősy (Sz) numbers, which I have given. The first of the movements features a lively tune over an initially simple accompaniment. However, the phrasing is very precisely marked with a frequent use of a staccato note at the end of a phrase and most of the piece is quiet, directions which Tiberghien follows closely, while allowing himself some freedom of tempo. The second movement is a helter-skelter toccata often in single notes or with a good deal of minor seconds for accompaniment – though marked tranquillo as they are colouristic rather than aggressively dissonant. Then we have another quick movement in moto perpetuo style with rushing quavers building up a menacing atmosphere – comparable to the roughly contemporary Ravel Toccata. Only the last movement is slow, with a mournful chordal figure leading to a melody which never quite gets going.

The Out of Doors Suite dates from ten years later by which time Bartók was at the height of his powers. The first movement, With Drums and Pipes, is precisely the kind of piece which is quoted to demonstrate Bartók’s percussive use of the piano, which it has but the menace is contained. The Barcarolla which follows has a rotating but varying bass supporting an irregular tune. Musettes is a strange piece. Apparently it was first intended as an interlude in the finale of the Piano Sonata but Bartók decided to remove it and incorporate it here. The flurries of note are apparently intended to evoke a piper warming up, though to me they suggest the haunting atmosphere of Scriabin’s final period; the middle section has a jaunty tune. The Night’s Music (Music of the Night in the score) which follows is the most celebrated piece of the set: over a repeating tone-cluster come the sounds of nature at night, which include birds, cicadas and frogs. I wonder whether this piece suggested to Messiaen how to incorporate bird-song in piano works. The final piece, The Chase, is a gallop but in poly-rhythms with a pattern of three notes in the right hand against five in the left – another possible influence of Scriabin.

This mature work is followed by the Fifteen Hungarian Peasant Songs, from the earlier period. These are all quite short and are transcriptions of folk material but in settings which, while not being particularly elaborate, are very varied and imaginative. Again the touch and volume are very precisely specified though the performer has some liberty as to tempo and use of rubato.

The Three Burlesques are the earliest music here and are in the nature of studies. The first, Quarrel, is a Presto moto perpetuo with a slower middle section. A bit drunk (Slightly Tipsy in the score) starts as a study in the use of acciaccaturas decorating a tune supported by chords before moving to different kinds of touch and spread chords. Capriccioso is most remarkable for the decorative flurry in the middle section, which anticipates the music for the lake of tears in Bartók’s great opera Bluebeard’s Castle, which is the next work in his catalogue.

Bartók originally intended his course of piano exercises Mikrokosmos for his son Péter, though Péter found that their difficulties soon exceeded his skill. The final two books all include works worthy of concert performance, so to include the whole of Book 6 is a reasonable choice. It contains fourteen pieces. Of these I would pick out From the Diary of a Fly, in which the pianist finds his two hands constantly interweaving, later having to negotiate clashing tone clusters and to play staccato in one hand and legato in the other. The rather Hindemithian Chromatic invention comes in two versions, the second of which is an inversion of the first. In a note Bartók says that the two can be played together, and Tiberghien offers this too, presumably using double-tracking – the booklet is silent on this. The book and the whole work end with the Six Dances in Bulgarian Rhythm. This means additive rhythms, such as, in the first piece 4+2+3. Incidentally they are dedicated to Harriet Cohen, best known as mistress and muse of Arnold Bax. They are immensely exciting, but they never lose their character as dances, and the listening ear and mind soon picks up the irregular rhythms.

I enjoyed this recital immensely. Tiberghien observes Bartók’s instructions closely, which include a good deal of quiet and gentle playing as well as forceful work when called for. He is flexible with his rhythm, not excessively so, but so as to feel the music naturally. He is not shocked by dissonance but treats it as one ingredient among others. I admire again Bartók’s resourcefulness in writing for his own instrument, and can hear both his heritage from Debussy and others and also how later composers as different as Messiaen and Ligeti have heard him.

There is no other recital with exactly this programme, but I was able to compare some of Tiberghien’s interpretations with others. In the Fifteen Hungarian Peasant Songs György Sándor (Sony SK68277) also offers sensitive playing, but sticks less closely to the phrasing and touch markings prescribed. Perhaps Sándor is slightly more robust in the vigorous passages. In the Out of Doors Suite Tiberghien is as imaginative as Zoltan Kocsis (Presto CD Philips 4463692) and honours are even. Since Kocsis is my touchstone for Bartók’s piano music this is high praise. In Mikrokosmos I was surprised how well Georges Solchany’s 1975 complete version (EMI 6 95570 2) stood up against Tiberghien: more forthright perhaps, and Solchany does not play the combined version of Chromatic Invention. His version also rather irritatingly does not provide a separate track for each piece. The recording is clear and good and the booklet informative. I hope Tiberghien gives us more Bartók: the great Piano Sonata awaits his attention.

Stephen Barber

Detailed track-listing
Suite Op. 14 Sz 62 [10:04]
Allegretto [2:13]
Scherzo [1:57]
Allegro molto [2:11]
Sostenuto [3:44]
Out of Doors Sz 81 [15:23]
1. With Drums and Pipes [2:01]
2. Barcarolla [1:57]
3. Musettes [3:12]
4. The Night's Music [5:26]
5. The Chase [2:12]
Fifteen Hungarian Peasant Songs Sz 71 [14:46]
Four Old Tunes
Rubato [1:02]
Andante [2:02]
Poco rubato [0:46]
Andante [0:36]
Scherzo: Allegro [0:57]
Ballad (Theme with variations). Andante [3:18]
Old Dance Tunes
Allegro [0:45]
Allegretto [0:42]
Allegretto [0:16]
L'istesso tempo [0:31]
Assai moderato [0:46]
Allegretto [0:29]
Poco piů vivo [0:33]
Allegro [0:30]
Allegro [1:34]
Three Burlesques Sz 47 [8:15]
Quarrel: Presto [2:20]
A bit drunk: Allegretto [2:53]
Molto vivo, capriccioso [3:00]
Mikrokosmos Sz 107 Book 6 [29:05]
140. Free Variations [1:53]
141. Subject and Reflection: Allegro [1:11]
142. From the Diary of a Fly: Allegro [1:32]
143. Divided Arpeggios: Andante [2:36]
144. Minor Seconds, Major Sevenths: Molto Adagio, mesto [4:56]
145a. Chromatic Invention (I) [1:08]
145b. Chromatic Invention (II) [1:11]
145c. Chromatic Invention (III) [1:10]
146. Ostinato: Vivacissimo [2:18]
147. March: Allegro [1:50]
Six Dances in Bulgarian Rhythm
148. Six Dances in Bulgarian Rhythm (I) [2:15]
149. Six Dances in Bulgarian Rhythm (II) [1:08]
150. Six Dances in Bulgarian Rhythm (III) [1:16]
151. Six Dances in Bulgarian Rhythm (IV) [1:33]
152. Six Dances in Bulgarian Rhythm (V) [1:10]
153. Six Dances in Bulgarian Rhythm (VI) [1:56]


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